The discontents of intelligence analysis

I came across three articles in a 24 hour period that I think are worthwhile to consider together.

Joshua Foust begins with ‘How Short-Term Thinking Makes the U.S. Worse at Fighting Wars‘. He bemoans the problems that arise from short (12 month) tour lengths for soldiers. Namely, that it results in soldiers only thinking in terms of getting through their tours and there’s little to no emphasis on plans that span tours, let alone consistency across the entire temporal scope of operations.

Joshua ends the article on a note of despair, unsure if there’s any practical way to get commanders to think long term. I’m not sure if there is either but I think an essential step finding a way to maintain institutional knowledge. After all, assuming future military missions may last more than a year or two can we expect a commander to make well informed decisions about his area of operations if she has no idea about what happened there two, five or ten years ago?

When I was in Afghanistan, I had numerous incidents where Afghans exhibited distrust or frustration with the coalition based on the actions of soldiers from past rotations. But how were we to know the truth? In any case we were left saying ‘Yes, but that’s not us. Let’s start fresh.’ Which, I imagine, is what those that came after said about us. Left-seat/Right-seat transitions take a few weeks and can’t even begin to cover the events of the past year, let alone the past decade.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed to give a talk on this subject to the Counterinsurgency Center a couple of years back. I agree that it’s going to be very unlikely to get anyone to think about decisions that go beyond their tour of duty. Our evaluation and promotion systems are all about measuring people over a set period of time. Maybe there’s a better way to do that but it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Therefore, what we need to do is get them to things that will support long term thinking by making it in their short term interests.

I was only thinking in terms of intelligence and within that field you could do some quite impressive things to make the collection, collation and analysis of institutional knowledge. Examples like Wikipedia (or intellipedia) could go quite far in building up a description of an area of operations over time. Such a product would never be ‘done’ but would be handed over from command to command to be added to (and drawn upon). In a way, it could almost be like a captain’s log from old seafaring days.

Where the analysts would come in would be in the organization of information going in and providing context and analysis to it going out.

Once you have that foundation, then you can really begin expecting commanders to (at least) understand their environment better and make more informed decisions.

Small Wars Journal has the wonderfully titled article “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” by Benjamin Kohlmann*. Here’s the short version…

The military could benefit greatly by tapping into the entrepreneurial culture and mindset fostered by places like the Harvard Business School rather than focusing on an insular career model that rewards the maintaining of the status quo from the most energetic and innovative members (the young) and withholding the freedom to innovate until they’re so entrenched in the system they won’t be interested (or have the energy) to change.

Now, I’ve got a couple of issues with the article. First, I think the article fetishizes business schools a bit too much and as you’ll see from the comments section there are tons of example of successful entrepreneurs that haven’t gone to such schools. There’s also seems to be a general belief that an advanced degree confers some sort of secret knowledge or perspective. What really seems to be going on there is that advanced degrees (perhaps from only select institutions) are used as a proxy for such knowledge based on the belief that only the most innovative, imaginative, motivated, etc. could be successful in such programs.

I’m just not sure that assumption has ever been demonstrated to be true.

Also, I fear it excludes many, many people who may have the very skills that Kohlmann is talking about but did not attend such schools. As Mrs. TwShiloh says ‘Advanced degrees are more about endurance than brilliance.’ That’s not to denigrate the work that goes into degrees (Mrs. TwShiloh and myself have a couple under our own belts) but I’m just not sure they ‘make’ innovative and ‘disruptive’ thinkers. They may (may) provide focus, context, and other tools that enhance ability but I’m not sure they can create such people. After all, how many graduates of Harvard Business School go on to rather unimaginative or unremarkable careers?

Putting that aside, my other issue is the idea that ‘entrepreneurs’ are the answer to our problems. I think that’s a cultural bias we have as Americans to always look to the business sector as the solution to our problems.** After all, Newton, Gallileo and Einstein weren’t entrepreneurs yet were clearly ‘disruptive thinkers’. So, like above, focusing on entrepreneurs risks excluding other, important thinkers who can provide the disruption we might need. I suspect some people are using the term broadly but it’s not clear.

And that brings me to the role of the analyst***. Fundamentally, intelligence analysts should be the quintessential disruptive thinkers (questioning assumptions, considering alternatives, viewing the world through different perspectives). Yet, their successful cultivation and deployment really requires not only leaders who recognize the value of such disruptive thought but also an environment conducive to such thought.

But what happens if those qualities aren’t present? And while some may disagree with Kohlmann when it comes to military leaders, he’s dead on if he’s talking about analysts:

The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits…an intellect that recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than first-order relationships..Or the strategist who understands that crowdsourced, horizontally structured non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states.

How does a ‘disruptive thinker’ go about doing the ‘disrupting’, when it’s really part of his job but not within his organization’s capabilities? Should we expect the analyst to also be an expert at marketing and have to ‘sell’ leaders on new methodologies, investigating potential new threats, and innovating new techniques? There’s very little opportunity for analysts to explore their world and innovate new ways to look at it. In part, this is because analysts are ‘support’ personnel and rarely become leaders or decision makers themselves.

Leadership remains a problem so long as the standard for analytical products is for every issue, no matter how complex, to be reducible to a one slide PowerPoint. Good leaders allow for the creation and growth of good analysts. That means getting exposure to different fields of study to allow for cross pollination of ideas. It means experimentation. It means failure.

All of those things, however, are non-starters for the vast majority of analysts. They don’t result in a box being checked. They can’t be graphed to show year on year ‘improvement’ (more widgets moved this month than last month!).

And these leads me to the conclusion that most agencies don’t really want intelligence analysis but have suffered from the imprecise use of language. Instead, I think most agencies would be much happier with people who can search data, summarize the work of others and create charts and presentations. Those may be important functions but they are a fraction of what one should expect from intelligence analysts. So, a question is, why would agencies pay for disruptive thinkers (intelligence analysts) in their agency when, at the same cost, they could hire more of the people with the skills they really seem to want

Finally, another article from the Atlantic called ‘Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber‘ by Eric Garland. Garland, who was a strategic analyst on the private side (working with business and governments) has quit his field. Why?

…the market for intelligence is now largely about providing information that makes decision makers feel better, rather than bringing true insights about risk and opportunity. Our future is now being planned by people who seem to put their emotional comfort ahead of making decisions based on real — and often uncomfortable — information.

This is a nice piece to read in conjunction with the Kohlmann piece above since it pretty quickly puts to bed the idea that the private sector has access to the secret of clearheaded decision making and thinking.

Strategic intelligence is more and more like reading the Harvard Business Review through a fun our mirror.

So, what is to be done?

I’m not sure but I’ve had a lot of discussions about this with analysts lately and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that there won’t be any real change unless the system suffers a catastrophic failure. Short of that, everyone is going to want to stay within their comfort zones…reject hearing ‘disruptive’ ideas because…well…they’re disruptive. Most people won’t want to entertain such thoughts unless their interests are in considerable peril and it no longer looks like the strategy of substituting activity for achievement can be maintained.

*The best part of the article is the comments section which I recommend very highly, and not just because there are some nice things said about your humble host (oh, gawd…so this is what masturbatory blogging looks like. eds ).

**As a nice coincidence which underscores this point, I recommend this article from the most recent Atlantic by Michael Sandel titled “What isn’t for sale?” about how ‘market thinking’ permeates our culture and thinking to such a degree that we’re not only unaware of it but that some serious negative consequences may come from that.

***And here I’m taking another liberty with the article and applying to analysts outside of the military. One of the objections to the article in the comments section is that the military is unique for several reasons and there are many times when having a disruptive thinker be…well, disruptive…in the military can, in some circumstances, be very problematic and cost lives and missions. While moving the discussion outside the military sphere into the law enforcement/homeland security ones (for example) don’t eliminate those concerns they do reduce them considerably (I’d say in all but the most extreme circumstances).

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One response to “The discontents of intelligence analysis

  1. Pingback: UK Intelligence Analyst, Tony Farrell sacked for doing his job – TRUTH WARS

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