Intelligence’s friction problem

The April issue of Scientific American has an article by David Pogue titled ‘Technology’s Friction Problem‘. In it, he argues that ‘friction’ (extra steps or general hassle between a potential ‘customer’ and something they want) is an unnecessary drag on all sorts of transactions from commerce to voting.

While Pogue isn’t explicit on this point I suspect, based on his examples, that this friction is unnecessary because its the result of legacy processes that were developed at times when technological considerations were very different and more limiting to what we have now. The only reason we don’t eliminate this friction, therefore, is because of the old ‘but we’ve always done it that way’ excuse.

Pogue puts forward an equation that got me thinking about intelligence and dissemination issues. There are two (well, at least two) problems when it comes to disseminating intelligence products: Getting the right product to the right person(s) and getting that right person to actually read (and hopefully apply) the product.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned ad nauseum, I’ve been less than impressed with delivery methods thus far which seem to revolve around email distribution lists. These produce two significant problems:

  1. the law of good intentions: You set up a distribution list for (let’s say) WMD information. Well, pretty soon you come across information that has nothing to do with WMD but someone thinks it’d be a good idea to disseminate. So, they hijack the list and send it out. Soon, the list becomes a catch-all that becomes a vehicle for sending out every piece of informational flotsam and jetsam that floats through the drain.
  2. As brilliant as you think your list is, everyone else has the same idea. Some of this is a pathetic grasp at institutional empire building and some of this is just plain stupidity. In any case, what you end up with is multiple lists that, in and effort to appear relevant, recycle everyone else’s products. Just recently, for example, an analyst was telling me that (s)he received the same message six times within 2 hours from different lists. Now, if someone is flying airplanes into building maybe this sort of redundancy is a good thing but when it’s standard operating procedure for everything it just trains you to start throwing messages into the trash unread. There’s simply no way to sort through them all.

I think this obsession with the email-push system of information is a hold over from the pre/early internet days when that really was a new and improved way to get information. There’s a lot more information flowing around now,however, and there are also better ways to sort through and get what you want.

But, the problem is friction gets in the way and we can’t improve the process.

So, here’s the equation from the Scientific American article which I think can also apply to intelligence products. This will be the likelihood someone will access and use any particular intelligence product.


Where P is the probability that the intelligence product will be relevant to the customer, B is the benefit to the customer from the product if they receive it and apply it and C is friction – the hassle of having to identify the source the information, make whatever contacts needed to get access, the cost in time and resources to wade through the irrelevant stuff that comes your way during your search, etc. D is in the original equation as the benefit the gratification the user gets from making the transaction (different, I assume, from B in that you can accrue this even if there is no direct benefit to you). This may manifest in the satisfaction in knowing that you’ve searched all available sources, even if you get a negative result. You are at least confident that there isn’t some hidey hole of information you need lurking around somewhere. In some instances PB may equal 0 and the value of D may still be greater than C….provided C isn’t too high. As an analyst, I think there are many cases where you’d like D>C. It’s all part of due diligence.

I was going to talk about where existing effort is spent on this equation but it occurred to me that I can’t identify any part of this equation that gets serious consideration. Audience analysis is a term rarely heard and still considered an exotic concept reserved for ‘advanced’ analytical training. Clear, meaningful information requests are treated as something ‘real’ intelligence consumers don’t have time for.*

Ideally, any moderately competent shop shouldn’t have to make decisions about which part of the equation to focus on. If fact, it might be worthwhile to incorporate something like this in the initial stages of intelligence production to make sure one keeps the eye on the ball, as it were. When I’m given a product I subject it to a handful of key questions** before beginning and check, throughout the process, that the answers haven’t changed and that my product remains on track with regard to them. I don’t think this equation supplants those questions but might be an important item to use in conjunction with them.

Ok, onto friction. What have we done about reducing friction? Well, just about every agency has its own ‘portal’ now and the (maligned) opportunities to sign up for email distribution but that moves from boon to bane when everyone has it. What was intended to reduce friction is now a main contributor to it. Lack of information has turned into a deluge of it and old ‘information silos’ have simply been replaced by new ones. All of this raises the C quotient to new heights.

How do we reduce friction? Well, Ideally we’d start by reducing the number of places one has to go for information. This can be enforced from above since we’re talking about governmental functions but that’s not the only model out there. In the private sector, information outlets that are comprehensive and do a good job are rewarded thrive while those that don’t wither.*** That hasn’t been an option for intelligence since each agency has its own budget and need not respond to customer needs. That’s why, if you’re unlucky enough to be on any of these tedious email lists, you’ll see an unending stream of calorie free products. I just don’t think this is going to happen. Fiefdoms are already in place and the moats and walls are too formidable to breech.

Plan B is something I’ve discussed before. We need to go from an exclusively ‘push’ system to one which allows customers to ‘pull’ information that’s relevant to their needs. With the ability to embed metadata into information it becomes easy for people to identify, search and retrieve information that they want. This is where the lessons of social media can really be exploited. Establishing networks of key information ‘sifters’ who can point you in the direction of interest isn’t that hard to do. Twitter serves that function quite well and requires comparatively little work in order to get a good payoff (the C is pretty low). But I don’t want to get into talking about individual tools and each may play a role for the analyst AND the consumer.

And that leads me to another way to reduce friction. That involves thinking about how products are delivered. Current thinking continues to maintain that the average intelligence consumer is a hyper-busy type A personality…or a slack jawed moron.**** In either case, they can’t be expected to handle anything more than 3 pages…preferably in PowerPoint slide bullets. Personally I think that’s bullshit and any senior level consumer of intelligence who demands that complicated subjects be boiled down to crude simplifications of 3-5 bullets on a page really shouldn’t be running anything. But, let’s run with it. If PowerPoint is insufficient and documents make brains hurt aren’t there other alternatives? How about delivering information in an audio format? How about graphically? Different types of information will lend themselves to different formats and, I suspect, written documents will be the best alternative for most products but how about getting a couple extra tools in the box.

So, the next time you’re working a project, spend a moment or two thinking about friction and how your product overcomes it. Either by being so totally awesome people will do anything to get it or by reducing the barriers to get, read and integrate it into their operations.

*Which you should translate as ‘People who have no clue what intelligence is but want to appear to be in the know and so will come up with incredibly lame excuses why they shouldn’t have to articulate what information they’re actually looking for.’

**Those questions are:

  • who is the audience (primary and secondary if I’m particularly ambitious)
  • what is the product to be used for
  • what key questions are being asked
  • what format is best suited for the customer and information presentation (this is difficult because most agencies remain wedded to PowerPoint or Word – all else is to be viewed as witchdoctorism)

***Obviously I’m simplifying here.

****In no way am I saying these are mutually exclusive categories


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