Making Intelligence Relevant

I recently found a whitepaper the name of which startled me:  “Fixing Intel:  A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”.  Startling in the frankness of its analysis, startling in the clarity of the remedies it calls for, and most of all startling in its applicability to my own field of business research and analytics.

Impressive credentials aside, its authors speak from deep hands-on knowledge.   General Michael T. Flynn served in Afghanistan for three decades as an intelligence officer, Captain Matt Pottinger served under Flynn in Afghanistan, and Paul Batchelor works at the Defense Intelligence Agency.  They have all walked the walk.

An alarming assessment

Flynn report shadow“Eight years into the war in Afghanistan,” begins the candid January 2010 assessment, “the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.”  The authors go on to quote General Stanley McChrystal, then head of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan: “Our senior leaders—the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States—are not getting the right information to make decisions with.”

If you are (as I am) a ‘value-oriented taxpayer’—aware that the US currently spends over $80 billion in intelligence each year, one-third of that military intelligence—you’d justifiably find this alarming.  It helps explain why, now ten years into that conflict, we are facing a less-than-optimal conclusion.

As I read the paper, I was struck by how similar this situation is to what many business leaders are experiencing.  With a word or two changed, it closely resembles what internal corporate clients of market research and competitive intelligence are telling us in our consulting engagements.  I reasoned that by understanding the shortfalls that senior military leaders find in military intelligence, we might we find some corrections for the shortfalls that business leaders find in business intelligence.

The situation in Afghanistan

The main criticism the authors level is that military intelligence units in the Afghan field “overemphasize detailed information about the enemy at the expense of the political, economic and cultural environment that supports it.”  They point out that huge amounts of public information—Afghan census data, minutes of meetings from tribal leaders, etc.—remains unanalyzed.  This, while unlikely to reveal specific locations of insurgents, does “provide elements of even greater strategic importance—a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself.”

The big-picture contextual information is missing from the regional command intelligence summaries.  By focusing on the trees—the insurgents—we are missing the forest—the insurgency.  Some field commanders claim they get more useful information from reading US newspapers than they get from these summaries, which are by contrast both significantly more expensive and less timely.  The authors attribute this partly to manpower constraints and lack of guidance from commanders.

In addition, they offer several cultural and attitudinal reasons for this poor performance.  They claim intelligence units are more concerned with secrecy than with mission effectiveness. They point out that intelligence units get drawn into tactical cycles of reaction and retribution, rather than being anticipatory and focusing on the strategic big picture.  They charge that “The intelligence community’s…culture…is strangely oblivious of [sic] how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders.” Their conclusion: “If brigade and regional intelligence sections were profit-oriented businesses, far too many would now be ‘belly up.’”

‘Competitive myopia’

The value is not there.  Not only are they not doing the job well, they don’t realize this—and don’t seem to much care.  If you substitute the words “market research and competitive intelligence” for intelligence community above, and “executives” for commanders, you’d have a spot-on description of the challenge corporate research and intelligence faces in many otherwise-advanced companies.

Not only don’t we know what we need to know, we don’t know that we don’t know—and are consequently unlikely to change our comfortable habits, routines, and rituals of data collection and analysis.

This kind of shortfall is tragic where human lives are at stake. Where jobs or even corporate futures are at stake, it is nearly as tragic.  I’ve seen it so often with our business clients that I’ve developed a name for it—competitive myopia.  In this condition, organizations focus so much on the trees—individuals competitors—that they miss the forest—the competitive environment and landscape.

Habits, routines, and rituals

The authors claim that in Afghanistan, intelligence has not adapted to the new realities of conflict.  They point out that a counterinsurgency is different from conventional war in a number of ways.  One of these is that tactical information may have more strategic significance than it does in conventional war.  An interview with a low-level tribesman, for example, can yield valuable insights into insurgent strategies.

The Cold War habit of “sitting back and waiting for information to fall into their laps” no longer works effectively for intelligence analysts.  The authors recommend, among other things, that analysts become more aggressive in collecting information from ground-level sources.

The nature of the conflict has changed—and with it the needs for, and characteristics of, successful intelligence.  But the behaviors of intelligence people have not changed along with them.  They’re fighting the current war using last-war tools and techniques.

In industry, competition and conflict change continually—sometimes drastically and quickly.  Strategy leaders in industries undergoing extreme change—health care is a current example—typically find their intelligence requirements changing to reflect changes in the competitive game.

Corporate research and intelligence, which can and should be leading the way toward such industry game changes, needs to resist the temptation to fall back on the habits, routines, and rituals that isolate it from–even blind it to–such changes.

What can be done?

Does our military-business analogy lead us toward a solution?  I think so.  Companies who sense they have fallen victim to competitive myopia should undertake—as these intelligence leaders in Afghanistan did—a complete top-down inventory of their intelligence needs, followed by a redesign of the intelligence process to meet the needs of their leaders in current and future—not past—competition and conflict.  In business, as in military affairs, we cannot win the conflicts of tomorrow with the tools of yesterday.

One Response to “Making Intelligence Relevant”

  1. There’s a difference between data and “intelligence”. Intelligence is what happens AFTER the collection of data – and is only as strong as first the data to start with, but also how intelligent the intelligence is afterward.

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