Emerging Tech

Could a workplace social network replace email and phone? One agency thinks so.

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The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to roll out a workplace social network next spring that will replace much of the agency’s emailing and phone calls, Chief Technology Officer Travis Howerton said Friday.

The platform, called One Voice, is a pilot that other divisions of the Energy Department may adopt in the future, Howerton said at a breakfast discussion about federal technology policy sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, a government-industry partnership.

The initial launch will be for NNSA’s roughly 45,000 employees and contractors. Howerton described the social networking program as similar to Facebook in that there will be a broadly accessible layer that everyone in the system can look at as well as numerous subcommunities for people in particular divisions or with certain expertise. Accessing the site will require extensive authentication, he said. Additional authentication will be required for specific communities that discuss sensitive information, he said.

The social networking platform will include embedded systems for instant messaging, Web conferencing and other tools, he said.

“The way I like to describe where we’re going,” Howerton said, “is today we’re chartered to make weapons of mass destruction using a weapon of mass distraction, which is email. How much of your email is actionable? Ten percent, maybe 15? The rest of it is people cc-ing you on things they think you need to know that you really don’t. And there’s 60 percent of it that’s just straight spam.”

A social information exchange rather than a one-to-one email exchange will help employees to filter out more extraneous information and will reduce the pressure to send unnecessary responses, he said. It also will bring useful participants into a conversation that an emailer might not have thought to include and filter out those who are extraneous, he said.

The system will archive all information so less institutional knowledge will be lost when an employee leaves the agency or changes jobs, he said.

The greatest challenges in adopting the system has been developing the architecture to support it, Howerton said, such as a cloud-based network that reaches all the agency’s dispersed offices and an authentication system to ensure the platform is secure.

Once the system is operating, NNSA may try to integrate other workplace functions into it, such as training, he said.

“This will foundationally change the way people work,” he said. “If you look at moving to a virtual workforce, one of the things you lose is those relationships. If you’re working from home every day, a social network allows you to build relationships with people in your community and establish status.”

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// April 23