Like a TV producer on the hunt for the next big home renovation project, my jaw dropped when I opened the May 9th Sunday Times article on Ben Rhode’s contribution to Obama’s presidency and found a picture of the Deputy National Security Advisor videoconferencing from inside White House Situation room.  The scene is clearly staged, since Rhodes’ own image appears on the large screen where the far end participant should appear, but the resulting image is a dramatic illustration of White House’s collaboration technology in need of a serious overhaul. 

  Ben Rhodes during a video conference in the White House Situation Room (Mills, 2016)

Ben Rhodes during a video conference in the White House Situation Room (Mills, 2016)

Before we call Ty Pennington for help, let’s step into the hallway and put the "situation" into the proper context . Are you aware that the Wi-Fi in the White House has not been able to stream live video until just this past year (Shear, 2016)? Respecting the security concerns, the lack of suitable WiFi points to broader collaboration challenges. WiFi influences staff mobility and productivity throughout the office. Pre-2015, executive decisions had staff searching for network jacks in order to view a video file, unlikely to be found in the corridors. Recall that Benghazi was in 2012, so watching any of that video required a tether. Now let's visit the staff offices and see how they are making out with their collaboration technology. 

WASHINGTON — Can you run the country with spotty Wi-Fi, computers that power on and off randomly and desktop speakerphones from Radio Shack, circa 1985?
— Michael D. Shear, NY Times White House Correspondent (2016)
  White House Staffers in the social media office inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in November 2015 (Crowley, 2016)

White House Staffers in the social media office inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in November 2015 (Crowley, 2016)

The office photo accompanying the the April New York Times article (Shears, 2016), and captures social media staffers in the throes of collaborative chaos; familiar growing pains shared by today’s corporate workforce. Check out the hap-hazard work stations in the confined office located inside the Eisenhower Executive office building. We see mix of Macs and PCs, and traditional phones strewed about.  It’s time for a 21st century Flip This House Technology upgradeWhat’s needed? Open space planning, a consistent operating platform, large ultra-high definition displays on sit/stand workstations, adorned web cameras and headsets, and let's toss the telephone out to save desk space. In a nutshell: we need a proper Unified Communication face-lift. 

A clue to the staff’s frustration with their tech inadequacy (or their sense of humor) can be found in the photograph mounted prominently on the wall.  In the photograph, President Obama sits at the end of a long conference room, surrounded by staff and facing a computer display that is so undersized it has been dragged halfway down the table. The social staffers have pasted the face of an old man on top of the photograph.  If you look closely at the touched-up face, you may see an uncanny resemblance to Macon Phillips, Former Director of Digital Strategy for the Obama Administration. With all due respect for Mr. Philips’s significant achievements in Online technology, including WhiteHouse.gov (whitehouse.gov, 2016), the irony is a lack of investment by the White House in suitable collaboration tools to see and manipulate the web-based content he brought to life.

  Close up of poster in Social Media Office (Crowley, 2016); and Macon Phillips, Former Director of Digital Strategy (Whitehouse.gov, 2016) 

Close up of poster in Social Media Office (Crowley, 2016); and Macon Phillips, Former Director of Digital Strategy (Whitehouse.gov, 2016) 

Now, let's get back to the Situation Room and have a look around before Ty picks up the sledge hammer. Not much has changed since the Phillips days. Notice that Mr. Rhodes is sitting in front of a laptop flanked by two tiny PC speakers, clearly inadequate and indicating that there may be serious problems with the room’s multimedia equipment. On the front display, we see a distorted, poorly lit image of Ben coming from his laptop’s camera. This should be a high-resolution image from a proper camera at the front of the room. Anyone dialed in and receiving this skewed image of Mr. Rhodes would have a hard time interpreting the Deputy’s expression as anything but severe. There does not appear to be microphones in the room, and Mr. Rhodes is not wearing a headset, so his voice must be getting being picked up by the laptop's built-in microphone. This is a classic Skype call with all its inadequacies. In fact, we can see the Skype logo watermarked on the upper right corner of the display. Putting questions of national security via Skype aside, my guess anyone reading this article has had a similar low-quality Skype experience and can therefore appreciate the diminishing returns from a “collaborative session” originating from the scenario depicted in this room.

Perhaps the photograph of the room is misleading. Maybe Mr. Rhodes was simply complying with the photographer’s request to put something on the displays and reached for the laptop output and used his own image as the only technically unclassified material readily available. Even if the Situation Room was working properly, with a high quality videoconferencing system tucked behind the dark mahogany paneling, this space is still in the technical dark ages.

What the White House Situation Room needs, in addition to proper lighting, is the next generation media collaboration surfaces along one large wall or multiple surfaces, tied back into the network. Just like in today’s agile business environments, the challenge for the White House is to make sense from the all the data pouring in from endless sources. To drink from this firehouse, senior staffers have to be able manipulate multiple, concurrent data sources in real time, running through various scenarios and predicted outcomes. Otherwise, executives are left reading older data found in reports and power point slides. In this room, there should be enough space for the President or his staff to walk up the images, change their size, sort their order, write over the top; all the while transmitting the session across the globe in real time to other situation rooms and remotely, including to the desktops of the same social media staffers, watching via streamed video.  

In summary, we have to change the spider webs of voice, video and data, and turn the experience into a porous coral reef, where content and display are so unified that the answers to the country’s most challenging problems can be reached in seconds rather than days. 

 

TURNING POINT is Mark Peterson's personal take on innovation and collaboration influencing today's corporate strategy. To have a conversion about what takes to implement collaborative solutions efficiently and at enterprise scale, contact Mark Peterson.

 

Reference 

Crowley, S. (2016). Image: White House Staffers in the social media office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in November 2015. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/us/politics/technology-upgrades-get-white-house-out-of-the-20th-century.html?_r=0

Mills, D. (2016). Image: Rhodes during a video conference in the White House Situation Room. New York Times Sunday Magazine, MM44. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html

Samuels, D. (2016). The Story Teller and the President. New York Times Sunday Magazine, MM44. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html

Shear, M. D. (2016). Technology Upgrades Get White House Out of the 20th Century. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/us/politics/technology-upgrades-get-white-house-out-of-the-20th-century.html?_r=0

White House.gov (2016) White House Author. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/author/macon-phillips

 

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