The problems with hierachy…

One of my recurring themes is that intelligence analysis is hampered through institutional inertia, particularly the desire of many (all?) organizations to cram their analytical staffs (both physically and functionally) into the existing structure’s hierarchy.  While this makes the organizational flunkies comfortable (everyone has a nice, neat place on the line and block chart) I argue that this hampers inter-and intra- analyst communication and collaboration.  Madcap results usually follow.

One of the ways people tried to overcome such problems has been to create fusion centers.  I haven’t been too fond of them for a number of reasons, one of which is that it only pretends to address this problem.  Analysts assigned to fusion centers still belong to their home agencies and you can’t really achieve the same unity of command that you can get in military organizations.  Worse, there’s no guarantee that the people running your fusion centers will have more than a passing knowledge of intelligence matters.  In many cases, post 9/11 fusion centers were seen as hot commodities making leadership positions there more a function of organizational patronage than an understanding of what intelligence does.  As one fusion center supervisor told me ‘Intelligence work doesn’t require any special qualifications.  Anyone who’s a good manager in one area can be a good manager of an intelligence section.’

Right, so maybe we should hire the manager at our local McDonald’s since the skill sets required for success are identical.

This set up creates two obstacles.

  1. the reluctance to share information
  2. the reluctance to share knowledge

Now, post 9/11 everyone has been fired up to address #1 either assuming #2 was synonymous with it or not being aware of the difference.  So what is the difference?  Well, over the weekend (god help me) I was reading “Knowledge Sharing as a Contingency in the Design of Counterterrorism Organizations” from the International C2 Journal.  The put the distinction this way:

…knowledge enables action, whereas information provides meaning and context for action…

Yeah, I didn’t care for that either but they seemed to imply a better formulation later on that I liked much better.  Information addresses the ‘Who, what, where, when’ questions while knowledge addresses the ‘why, what’s next, and so what’ questions.

I’d say, despite recent headlines, we’re doing an ‘ok’  job at intelligence sharing (at least among law enforcement agencies).  We are, however, not doing much of a job at knowledge sharing and continue to work within systems that are structurally unsound for intelligence work.  That, according to the authors of this paper, is a bad thing.

The authors design and test an experiment comparing the analytical abilities of groups using a traditional hierarchical structure against an ‘Edge’ system (defined in the experiment as having ‘no pre-assigned leaders or functional groups established in advance’ and ‘without formal leaders, functional groups or restricted communications’.  You can almost hear the screams of ‘Anarchy!’ from the old guard).  They evaluated the systems on their speed and accuracy.  And here are their results:

  1. Persons working in an Edge organization, on average, perform their work faster [than in a hierarchy]. However, persons working in Edge and Hierarchy configurations produce comparably accurate result
  2. Persons sharing knowledge, on average, perform their work more slowly [than those just sharing information].  However, persons sharing knowledge produce more accurate results.  These results imply an interesting trade space for organizational designers: the sharing of knowledge results in more accurate but slower performance.

And therefore…

…knowledge sharing within Edge organizations signals benefit without cost: accuracy improves with no speed degradation. With the Hierarchy, however, costs and benefits in terms of speed and accuracy must be traded off against one another. This suggests that the Edge organization may have a performance edge over the Hierarchy. Moreover, when knowledge is shared, the Edge is considerably faster (0.47 vs. 0.25) and more accurate (0.75 vs. 0.69) than the Hierarchy is.

So, now that we know this (or at least can recognize the possibility that hierarchical organizations with an obsession with information sharing to the exclusion of everything else may not be the best way to address intelligence concerns in a complex environment) what will the future of intelligence organization look like?

My bet is it’ll look exactly like it looks now.  Oh, we might get better at talking about it and claiming we’re making changes but scratch the surface and you’ll see it’s the same old stuff in new, shiny packaging.  As  long as nothing goes wrong, nobody gets hurt.  Agencies get to run in their old, comfortable ways, the public thinks it’s getting some sort of new, improved security and everyone is happy.  And if something does go wrong, everyone can rush to the nearest TV camera and claim ‘We had no way of knowing!  This was totally unforeseen!’

Cue useless government fact finding report in 3…2…1….

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