MITRE's "Handshake" Lets Users Meet and Collaborate in the Virtual World

September 2010
Topics: Collaborative Computing, Collaborative Decision Making, Customer Relationship Management
Handshake, a new social networking tool developed by MITRE, enables an organization to seamlessly collaborate with partners and customers while still keeping proprietary information protected and secure.
computer screen of MITRE's external partnership network

"We don't want technological barriers between us and our sponsors," says Donna Cuomo, chief information architect in MITRE's Center for Information and Technology (CI&T), which provides IT, knowledge-worker services, and communications support to the corporation, "yet we want to remain secure and protect our sensitive information. We want to make collaboration with our partners and customers much easier and more seamless—we want to be part of their virtual team."

Handshake, a social networking tool built on the Elgg platform, is already making that happen by enabling both internal and external networking via profiles, discussion capabilities, messaging, and wikis. The new business networking prototype, a MITRE-sponsored research project with CI&T support, allows users to create topic-specific groups that may include members from both inside and outside of MITRE. Since its deployment in August 2009, over 3,000 users—more than 810 of them external to MITRE—have visited Handshake at least once, according to Cuomo. Those external users come from industry; other FFRDCs; and federal, state, and local agencies.

"What's really exciting to me as a MITRE leader is that not only have I been able to build a network of my sponsors and their stakeholders and customers, but the network itself is vibrant," says Kim Warren, chief technologist in the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HSSEDI™) and Homeland Security Center (HLSC), the MITRE organization that operates SEDI. "I can interact with that network, but it also interacts with itself, and the members are solving their own problems.

"When we see critical challenges bubble up from the stakeholders groups in Handshake, we know what to tell our sponsors are the big issues for their stakeholders—and that's pretty powerful."

A Different Animal

According to Cuomo, MITRE staff is already using this new business social networking tool in many creative ways. For example, last fall Jeffrey Sands, a chief scientist within the HLSC, was approached by the head of the newly formed National Fusion Center Association (NFCA), which brings together anti-terrorism and response organizations from across the country. The NFCA needed an easy way to share and comment on policy and related issues affecting fusion centers nationwide. Today, Handshake is one of their primary means of communication and collaboration. "Handshake is very simple and intuitive," Sands says, "and it's helping people to connect in ways they've found difficult to do using traditional methods."

(Video) Handshake, a new social networking tool developed by MITRE, enables an organization to seamlessly collaborate with partners and customers while still keeping proprietary information protected and secure.

Others are turning to Handshake for some novel problem-solving activities. For example, MITRE senior principal scientist Nahum Gershon, is helping to envision the company's workforce of the future and how it can best be supported. Using a Handshake group called MITRE 3.0, he reached out to almost 1,000 employees to engage them in picturing their future needs and work practices.

"A social networking platform is uniquely suited to engaging a larger swath of users on various problems. The degree of engagement is high and the interactions cut across users working in various locations and domain areas," says Gershon.

Radical Mind Shift

"Much of the research on Handshake isn't just about the technology—it's about trying to come up with a new problem-solving structure that lets MITRE be a network-empowered environment," Cuomo says. "Handshake will enable a network of professional and technical colleagues, so we won't just be making MITRE-only decisions anymore. We'll be leveraging our connections and contacts to bring the best thinking to bear for our customers' problems."

Handshake will also be integrated with MITRE's corporate intranet. Mike Cenkl, director of innovation and technology in CI&T, says that Handshake is part of a multi-year plan to extend social networking across the enterprise—and beyond.

"We're researching social networking not only for the enterprise, but also across enterprises," he says. "That's really what Handshake is: a platform for sharing across multiple organizations." Other pieces of the social networking puzzle, which Cenkl says will come together as a coherent whole over the next few years, include cloud computing and research into how social media might be used to support systems engineering and the acquisition process. Finally, the company is reaching out to other organizations—including Aerospace Corporation, Johns Hopkins University, and other FFRDCs—in hopes of joining forces on social media related topics.

"We'd like to form a loose consortium of like-minded companies, with the intent of collaborating to create a set of requirements for social media platforms," Cenkl says. "Right now, no one vendor has an integrated set of capabilities that meet our needs. If we can pull together a number of organizations with similar interests, we have a better chance of influencing vendors. This will give us a unique advantage in having the technology lead on collaborative platforms. It's not just an evolution of our intranet—it's a radical mind shift. We'll be using our expertise in the technology space to build the right community in a timely manner to solve pressing sponsor problems, and we'll be doing it in a secure and trusted way."

Both Cenkl and Cuomo emphasize that MITRE's social networking revolution is still in its infancy. "We're still in the early adopter phase; we're not sure we can predict what direction this will end up taking," Cuomo says.

Kim Warren is optimistic. "If our vision is that we're going to be well-tied to our sponsors and their stakeholders," she says, "this is the perfect technology enabler."

—by Tricia C. Bailey

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