Vivek Kundra at Dreamforce: Ex-Fed CIO Touts Social Media Revolution


By Tony Kontzer Who'd have thunk it? It sure sounded like the seeds of a revolution were being planted by none other than former U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra during a panel discussion Aug. 31 at Salesforce.com's Dreamforce 2011 conference in San Francisco.

No, Kundra didn't suggest Americans take to the streets and seize the country by force--it wasn't that kind of revolution he was talking about. It was, rather, what Kundra's co-panelist, Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendt, called the "social revolution." Specifically, it's nothing less than the end of business as we've known it.

"Monolithic institutions are realizing that power is moving away," Kundra told a packed conference room. "People can demand more of elected officials and institutions and ask more of their services."

The way Kundra sees it, if social media can provide the tools for the people in Arab countries to overthrow oppressive governments--as we've seen time and again during 2011--then it can surely be used to rally resources around building a nimble, transparent and communicative government.

For those who haven't been paying attention, Kundra just departed after two-plus years as the first CIO of the U.S., during which time he attempted to identify the raft of inefficiencies that have long plagued the nation's IT efforts. The poster child for this--one that Kundra detailed in an editorial he wrote for the New York Times this week--is the Defense Department's abandonment of a personnel system it had invested 10 years and $850 million in building.

Kundra's recipe for fixing such problems centers on the widespread adoption of cloud computing by federal agencies, a strategy he believes will help the federal government save billions. He believes that by leveraging the cloud to build a social networking environment that will enable government to collaborate more effectively, both among agencies and with the public, a new type of government will take shape.

(It bears repeating here that Kundra won't be around to bring his vision to fruition. That job now falls to his recently named replacement, Steven VanRoekel.)

Of course, Kundra also recognizes there are limits to how social government can be. "I'm not sure people would want to hear from the IRS in a social way," he quipped in answering a question from Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.

On the other hand, Kundra noted that the Transportation Security Administration, not exactly the most cuddly of agencies, has been using social media to do such things as provide travelers with updates about lines at airport security checkpoints. So maybe there's hope for the IRS, but I digress.

Neelie Kroes, head of the European Commission's digital agenda, implied during the panel discussion that she shares Kundra's (and Benioff's) vision of the impact the social revolution will have on government, saying that the cloud and its ability to bring huge cost savings to previously wasteful organizations was arriving "at the perfect moment for finance leaders of government." But she also said she remains concerned about the privacy and security issues inherent in the cloud, and has even secured Kundra's services as an advisor to her on this topic.

Benioff, of course, attempted to reassure her. "There's nothing more important to Salesforce than trust," he said. "For our customers, we have to have as much transparency as possible. That's how we build trust."

To that end, Ahrendts predicted that the social revolution would bring a massive shift in responsibilities, away from cash-strapped government agencies and toward companies like Salesforce that are building the technologies in question. "The onus will be on business," she said, ominously.

If social media can help overthrow tyrannical governments, then why, Ahrendts asked, can't innovative companies (vendors and customers alike) use their newfound social capabilities to improve cities, countries, or even the world?

Why, indeed.