Lessons from the Marine Corps Civil Information Management System (MARCIMS)
Diana Moga and Abraham Blocker
Information Operations demands innovative ways to share real-time information within and among the different Information Operations capability sets. For Civil Military Operations, The Marine Corps Civil Information Management System (MARCIMS), a cloud-based platform that launched in 2014,  is the program of record for the Civil Affairs community designed to manage civil information. MARCIMS’ aim is to enable Civil Affairs (CA) users to collect, organize, analyze, visualize, and share field collected data . Its developers built the application, which consists of web pages and standardized forms that users can modify in real-time, as a means for civil affairs specialists to create content, build knowledge on the civil environment, and input data. But despite its features and design, MARCIMS has failed to gain wide-spread use as the program of record for civil information as its developers had hoped. The small size of the civil affairs community, MARCIMS’ imperfect design, and the learning curve required for proficiency have presented obstacles for the platform to catch on. Fortunately, scholarly frameworks on technology innovations not only offer recommendations for how MARCIMS could overcome these problems, but also offer lessons for the future design of technology innovations for Information Operations platforms.
Marine Corps Civil Affairs is a Small Community
If MARCIMS consists of web pages that users can modify, then the MARCIMS platform bears resemblance to Wikipedia, which also consists of web pages that users can modify . One could also argue that the goals of Wikipedia, for every single person on the planet to gain access to the sum of knowledge across different fields  are similar to those of MARCIMS, which is for every civil affairs Marine, and ultimately all stakeholders in Information Operations, to gain access to the sum of civil information that exists. But at the core of building this sum of knowledge is the demand for having a larger user base. In Wikipedia’s early days, much of its content was erroneous, but this was eventually overcome by harnessing the spirit of organizational democracy, encouraging contributors with “anyone can edit,” clearly stated on its site, while also encouraging “deletionists” . As a frame of reference, today, the number of registered Wikipedia editors total 132,000. It’s this volume of entries, deletions, and contributions to the knowledgebase on Wikipedia that has created the free encyclopedia people know and reference today. Therefore, the success of MARCIMS as a civil information database depends upon a robust and active user base to populate it with information. With only three civil affairs groups in the Marine Corps, the civil affairs community may not have numbers. Voluntary contribution and data entry into MARCIMS will not be sufficient to produce the volume of content and edits necessary to create a robust, relevant, and useful database. In order to use MARCIMS as a civil information database, a concerted and coordinated effort to populate information will be necessary.
Common Stumbling Blocks in Technology Innovations
The MARCIMS platform is an innovation to the Marine Corps civil affairs community but has encountered several stumbling blocks to its implementation. Scholarly implementation literature points to six areas in which organizations can expect issues when introducing a new technology: unreliable and imperfectly designed platforms, the learning curve for would-be users of the new technology, overcoming the skepticism of would-be users who are comfortable with the status quo, changes in responsibilities brought on by the technology, the time-consuming nature of ensuring a successful implementation, and general organizational resistance to innovations and changes in the status quo . Anecdotal evidence suggests that MARCIMS has encountered trouble in most of these areas, but the biggest hurdles have been the platform’s imperfect design and the learning curve required for gaining proficiency in MARCIMS.
MARCIMS as a platform should be designed to address the end in mind, which is connecting activities with lines of effort and integrating with the larger IO and intelligence communities. If a necessary goal for the survival and relevance of MARCIMS is to encourage the maximum number of user contributions, the MARCIMS interface presents a barrier to encouraging this very end state. For starters, account support is not done by an automated system and requires approval by a physical person who is subject to government work hours and availability. Though MARCIMS can be used across Information Operations to input civil information, regardless of whether a Marine is civil affairs, the absence of a user-friendly ability to upload files, create pages, or use the assessment forms has contributed to the failure of wide-spread adoption. An efficient search algorithm that produces likely results based on a search query or an algorithm that highlights relevant information or performs analysis on the resident data in MARCIMS, is also conspicuously missing. Frequently referenced or cited content is not rewarded with more “hits”. Indeed, the most efficient way to search for something in MARCIMS is to look for a page a user already knows exists.
In its present state, MARCIMS does not determine links, connections, or patterns in civil information resulting in a sea of unrelated, spotty data points. Consequently, there seems no cumulative benefit to publishing the civil information gathered. The design of the platform does not appear to have been conceived to relate to common Lines of Effort such as Enabling Counter Threat Networks or Demonstrating U.S. Commitment to a region, which civil affairs activities directly relate to, or documenting Training and Readiness requirements for the civil affairs MOS. Nor does it appear to have been designed with potential integration with other Information Operations or Intelligence information gathering platforms. As it is today, MARCIMS is an island. Civil affairs Marines gather and input information that does not connect with the broader Information Operations picture.
During the five-week course when Marines acquire the 0530/0532 Civil Affairs Officer/Civil Affairs Specialist designation, too little time is dedicated to teaching how to use MARCIMS, and the skills are not covered during monthly reserve drill periods at civil affairs units. This is significant, because the majority of civil affairs Marines reside in the Reserve Component. Because of MARCIMS’ design, the skill required to breeze through page creation and formatting are on par with that of a semi-professional web blogger on a self-hosted site. In addition, the standard for civil affairs writing, communication, and reporting is new to many civil affairs Marines, placing an additional hindrance to the quality and volume of content creation. The end result is that a civil affairs Marine’s first earnest interaction with MARCIMS comes during an activation or annual training period. It’s precisely during this time when the burden to invest in learning MARCIMS is at odds with accomplishing tasks that directly contribute to the civil affairs mission.
These two hindrances to the widespread use of MARCIMS serve to dispel the myth, “if you build it, they will come.” Ultimately, the decision for a civil affairs Marine to overcome the burden of the platform’s imperfect design and learning curve rests on the question of whether there is anything to gain from uploading data into MARCIMS at all. Does the data housed in MARCIMS improve critical thinking about the civil environment? Is the data uploaded in MARCIMS well displayed and easy to access and reference, such that a commander or staff section will find it useful? Who is the beneficiary of populating data into MARCIMS? Without answers to these questions, the view that MARCIMS simply imposes an additional task with ill-defined upside for civil affairs Marines will persist.
For many technological innovations the following elements have proven fundamental to the successful implementation of new technology: Training, technical assistance, availability of awards for innovation use, a positive organizational climate for new innovations, positive managerial support for innovation, financial resources to further invest in innovation, long-term willingness to support skill development, learning, and growth, and managerial patience with overcoming the hurdles .
Overcoming the dearth of user contributions, imperfect design, or learning curve problems is no easy task. To have a shot at making MARCIMS relevant, the stakeholders must meet one another mid-way. The developers must encourage feedback via an efficient means, to begin a dialogue to improve the design of the platform. The formal Civil Affairs school must dedicate a larger portion of the curriculum to teaching the fundamentals of civil information management from A to Z, with the publication of civil information in MARCIMS as the final step. At the unit level, civil affairs leaders must build upon the knowledge established at the MOS school, and drive the iterative process with MARCIMS developers to provide useful, specific feedback to improve the platform. Only when the stakeholders assume the characteristics necessary for successfully implementing new technology will MARCIMS become relevant. In the meantime, civil affairs Marines will turn to other platforms to meet their needs, and silos within and among Information Operations will persist.
About the Authors Diana Moga is a Civil Affairs officer serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. She led a Marine civil affairs team in support of Marine Corps Forces, South and served as Civil Information Management section Officer in Charge. She's a graduate of U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in International Relations.
Abraham Blocker is a Civil Affairs non-commissions officer serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He is currently assigned to the J7/9 Directorate at U.S. Southern Command. He has deployed as a civil affairs team chief in support of Marine Corps Forces, South, and served in Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines. He works for an Investment Bank in New York City.
 “MARCIMS,” United States Marine Corps, accessed May 23, 2020, https://www.candp.marines.mil/Programs/Focus-Area-4-Modernization-Technology/Part-2-Information-Operations/Part-21-Command-and-Control-C2/MARCIMS/.
 “MARCIMS,” MARCIMS about page, accessed May 23, 2020, https://marcims.org/index.php/MARCIMS:About.
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