This post is a guest post by AIRIP Board Member Meredith Wilson. Meredith is Founder and Principal at Emergent Risk International. The post can also be found on her website.
An intelligence-led approach in business, government, and non-government organizations will almost always yield better outcomes than reactive strategies. In simple logic: better research yields better outcomes. High quality intelligence research and analysis, however, is not as simple as that. And as such, building a professional intelligence capability is also not as simple. Here are some (of many) reasons why:
More information does not equal better information
We have more data at our fingertips than at any time in human history. However, this does not mean we always use it properly. More than ever we can become a victim of our own bias and that of the people reporting and publishing information. That’s not just special interests groups or politically slanted publications we are talking about. There are so many angles and reasons (not all of them nefarious) for people, organizations, governments, and businesses to publish information which is slanted in one direction or another that the ability to apply true investigative research, analysis, and critical thinking skills is imperative if we are to utilize all this data to make effective decisions.
Intelligence is only as good as the question asked and the questions we need to ask to answer that question
Intelligence professionals are trained to ask more questions. Starting with the question that is being asked in the first place. For example, when a business leader comes to them and asks: “How will ISIS impact the security of our operations in the Middle East?” Is that even the right question to start with?
Perhaps the question is actually: “Will ISIS impact our operations in the Middle East (or perhaps we should narrow this to a more specific geographical area!)? If so, how?” After all, ISIS is but one of myriad players in the Middle East and the impact of their presence on the region goes well beyond security. Or perhaps in this case, the company isn’t impacted at all by ISIS but is strongly impacted by organized criminals working in other parts of the region. There are infinite other ways to ask the question (which could be the subject of its own blog post), but the point is, a good intelligence professional will first work to find the best question to yield higher quality information and analysis for better decision-making.
Intelligence professionals also ask questions of their sources: “Is this the whole story?” “What is their source of information?” “Could their source have a particular reason/angle for reporting this information in this manner?” “Is there an important key piece of information/ context missing from this story?” (And there always is.) These types of questions and others must be asked before forming an analytical judgment. Additionally, it’s imperative to seek out sources with opposing points of view. Intelligence professionals are trained to look for secondary and tertiary sources to verify information and seek out expertise and human sources on the ground that can provide additional context. Additionally, while being aware of reporting on major media outlets, intelligence leaders understand that these reports alone do not provide the context needed to provide an accurate judgment. More questions must be asked – and they need to be asked of sources with more context than your average AP stringer or cable news commentator.
Trained intelligence professionals are not uncomfortable with having their analytical judgments challenged
A good intelligence analyst understands that their judgment is not infallible no matter how well they know the subject matter. They know that it is not uncommon for a young analyst – new to the field – to make a more accurate judgment than one who has spent years on the subject. This is because deep experience comes with its own biases. Intelligence professionals drive good decision making by providing analytical judgments that have been “stress tested.” That is, they’ve allowed other people to poke holes in their arguments, ask questions, and play devil’s advocate. When faced with a weak bottom-line judgment, intelligence professionals consider opposing views and adjust their analysis accordingly. To not do so puts their customer – the decision maker – at risk of poor decision-making based on faulty or incomplete information.
Trained intelligence professionals understand that we don’t know as much as we think we do and analysis without context is dangerous…
The information age and the speed of information has led us to believe we know more than we do. It has led us to believe we understand root causes of problems in other countries, and that we have a handle on how these cultures operate. The truth is, most of us don’t and we can’t unless we have walked the ground, smelled the smells, and experienced life in these places. This does not mean we cannot provide good analysis, but it does mean we need to work extra hard to seek out proper sources and context before providing our insights. Local media sources, primary language sources, multiple individuals on the ground, historical information, motives and methods of political actors, and information on cultural and social norms are just some of the inputs we require. We cannot overlay our own assumptions – about the world, about religion, about politics, about survival – on other cultures and come away with a solid analytical judgment. When we do this, what we come away with is flawed analysis that will encourage flawed decision-making.
High quality intelligence requires resisting pressure to provide intelligence and analysis that conforms to the decision maker’s worldview
… and decision-makers who know better…
Recent history has provided a few examples of policy makers who’ve pressured intelligence officials to provide intelligence analysis that conformed to their political or policy goals. While there is more to these stories than meets the eye – from sourcing failures to policy failures – this is an easy trap to fall into. In many organizations (business especially) decision makers have authority over the presence of an intelligence function within their organization. Thus, a professional intelligence function requires analysts with strong confidence in their capabilities and the ability to guard their analysis against the wrong kind of influence. Just as importantly, it requires ethical decision-makers who understand the power and proper use of a professional intelligence function.
Meredith Wilson is the Founder of Emergent Risk International, a Dallas based risk intelligence and advisory firm specializing in strategy consulting, bespoke analysis, and training to address geopolitical opportunity and risk for multi-national companies and multi-lateral organizations. She is also an AIRIP Board Member.