/* */

10 February 2006

Conversations in intelligence analysis - the impact of voice

During the age of the dot com, rapid changes overtook many traditional brick and mortar businesses and many of those organizations simply could not react to, let alone keep pace with, the speed of new developments and the rate of value creation which in many cases imperiled their core business models. These organizations failed, often spectacularly, and often in surprisingly short timelines, in what suddenly became a brutally Darwinian marketplace. During this period, a group of technology adept and business savvy authors put forth their ideas on the causes and impacts of those failures – many of which still endure to this day. The resulting “Cluetrain Manifesto” has become in some ways a cult classic in the online community. While the work reflects a dated enthusiasm in the context of a particular historical era, it does not however automatically follow that the implosion of the unique bell epoch entirely invalidates the ideas that flowed at the most recent fin de siecle. They, like all other aspects of the profession, require evaluation. And the core concept of the Cluetrain is that markets are conversations.

The idea of the intelligence as a unique kind of market is one that merits some consideration. It is discussed elsewhere from time to time to varying reception by practitioners. The commercialization of intelligence has demonstrated the nature of this market dramatically – thus a paper from Joint Military Intelligence College recently estimated that the community was now made up of contractors for upwards of a third of its billets. (See footnotes page 5 in “Bringing Intelligence About”).

So, if one is prepared to stipulate that commercialization has already taken place to a not insignificant extent, there is by definition a market. Unfortunately, most intelligence agencies do not function with the recognition that they are actors in a marketplace – but rather as bureaucracies tethered to their rice bowls. This creates structures which cannot endure and whose output, like that of any other centrally-planned, state dominated industrial age organization, is doomed to fail in that marketplace.

It is also clear that the community is also not the only voice reaching the policymaker. The proliferation of competition inputs to has even spawned its terminology – the CNN effect – but it is not limited to merely major media channels. Decision maker attention has become fragmented as never before by competing and often contradictory streams and pressures.

Markets are by definition characterized by competition. Providers in these markets are competing for the attention (and by extension, affections – in the form of continued funding, access, or other intangibles of processes within government bureaucracies). So the question becomes, given the stated premise of markets as competing conversations, is the intelligence community using the correct voice in its conversations?

Intelligence community members tend to emphasize certain aspects of its collective voice – factors which are impersonal, distant, monolithic, and often arcane. These tend to be rejected by the consumer in some cases, and devalued in others. Moreover, increasingly consumers are distrustful of formal expertise – especially anointed expertise. They rightly understand that the issues they are confronted with are complex and rapidly changing, and many of these issues have emerged so quickly that few persons can truly claim a depth of understanding across any length of time. (The classic example of these suspect claims are found in the technical markets for programmers, in which selected individual’s resumes make claim to experience using a particular programming language or technology for longer than the language was in existence. Similar parallels exist for major intelligence accounts, especially in the post 9/11 world.)

This distrust is magnified by the choice of impersonal voices. Consumers rightly sense that many non-experts hide behind the corporate logo in an attempt to mask their own shortcomings, or more accurately that of the presented product. They no longer buy into the idea that a particular agency may have a “unique brand of analysis” that can be transmitted through its products independent of the people that generated them, no matter what kind of coordination or editing process nor what kind of corporate culture that may exist within the agency. Increasingly, the commodification of intelligence also means that not only can a similar (if not superior) grade of analysis can be obtained elsewhere in the marketplace, it may be easier and cheaper to obtain it elsewhere. Further, there is almost certainly going to be a greater deal of transparency available into the authorship, and sourcing of that analysis; and far fewer restrictions on the handling and use of that product. In a world driven by policymaker’s Blackberries, the latter restriction may be becoming increasingly more onerous than the perceived value of much of the products that form the staple output of some organizations.

In short, many consumers will instinctively seek out aspects of the personal in these conversations, because they are used to dealing with the personal. This is especially pronounced among policy-makers and senior management level decision-makers whose most critical professional skills fall into the soft areas of interpersonal interactions. These individuals routinely and constantly must evaluate information presented to them by individuals and use this to reach judgments – and the means by which they do so has nothing to do with a classification marking nor any number of joint task force ad-hoc working group logos.

These dynamics only grow stronger over time as new generations of policy-makers will emerge who will be far less tolerant of the impersonal and far more ready to seek out and utilize alternatives. Absent consideration of these factors, the relevance of traditional styles of production will continue to decline. This already may help to explain the growing trend towards “injected information” and ad-hoc analysis communicated by email, in person, or in hallway conversation that is rapidly overtaking classic papers as the primary channel of consumption for many intelligence consumers, especially in higher op-tempo environments.

The other hanging question that comes from re-conceptualizing intelligence as conversation is the same as faced by many media organizations: the sudden debate over ownership of that conversation. These concerns become magnified when consumers no longer trust their intelligence functions due to the alienating impacts of improperly understood voice.