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20 September 2006

Breaking the analyst / collector divide

Increasingly the Long War is surfacing one of the most serious challenges to the classic model of the intelligence community, in which analysts reside comfortably in their ivory tower and the collectors are forcibly kept out of the briefing conference rooms lest they track mud over the nice clean floors. Now, analysts are forward deployed in ever increasing numbers, and are more often than not starting to do things, rather than just sit behind a desk or pass papers in the hallway.

Even in more hospitable environs of the more “rearward” (or at least less directly kinetic) locations of the Long War, analysts are interacting on a more frequent basis with those outside the walls. These interactions all have the potential to generate unique information not otherwise known to the body collective. This is especially prevalent in the homeland security community, in which a unique combination of private industry, non-governmental organizations, and the less connected elements of state and local law enforcement are constantly generating material which simply cannot be found anywhere else. Likewise, in the corporate world of competitive intelligence, collection and analysis are almost always integrated into a single function – often euphemistically referred to as research functions.

The challenges posed by this new dynamic are manifold from classic theoretical perspectives, but the key issue underlying all of these is one of knowledge management. How are the results of these interactions captured and shared, and how does knowledge and insight arise from this process?

The use of the term knowledge management has perhaps doomed many of these efforts from the start. Entire industries exist to facilitate KM systems and processes, each with their own highly paid consultants and patented buzzword solution sets. But offering up technologists, or even methodologists, with the “one true answer” is merely to spill additional blood upon the alter of the irrelevant.

Beyond technology, this is a social problem set. Tools such as wikis and collaboration mechanisms such as Groove have long existed to permit such exchanges at the technical level, but these are not integrated into the processes of the community. Informal exchanges dominate the day in the absence of considered mechanisms, but these are inconsistent and fraught with unexamined dependencies and assumptions. Yes, somehow the system manages to work; but at what opportunity cost – or cost in human lifetimes?

Likewise, this problem will become acute as the community faces its looming challenges of attrition and replacement when the last of the boomer generation slides inexorably into retirement. The community will have to rely on the same mechanisms of experience capture, caveat, validation, and knowledge formation that are critical in a world where the analyst is often thrust into roles where they are functionally, if not programmatically, collectors; but in this case the role will be as a collector of continuity before the human capital which provides it is lost.

Ironically, if ever there was a role for the academics in the community it is here, but outside of the case study method, there have been few efforts to develop and validate the approaches required to ensure preservation of knowledge capital, in the end the very essence of the community’s existence.

19 September 2006

The further balkanization of the Parallel World

The legal structures of the nation state are increasingly attempt to exert themselves in the Parallel World, as are those who would leverage these structures in order to functionally redistribute the wealth in this new world for their own gain.

Google, of course, having emerged for the time being as one of the most critical of the new webstates, has long been a target for entities ranging from the PRC’s censors to the cults of the rich and powerful here in the United States.

The latest legal skirmish, fought out in the narrow confines of a small and provincal European court, is all the more ironic in that it features the members of the now declining nobility of the Fourth Estate. But each tribe and interest will seek to carve the Parallel World to its own desire, whether through efforts in law where business practice has failed; or through the law of code, as thinker Larry Lessig has postulated.

The end result, of course, will have little to do with the actual redistribution of wealth such as those engaged at the tactical level may desire. Rather, it is much more likely that the once unfettered boundaries of opportunity in the Parallel World will be Balkanized in such a manner as to be entirely schizophrenic. That the users of future services in such an environment will come to accept this will be a measure of just how different the next generation of intelligence analysts and collectors will have to be. This is especially important when one examines the impact of this Balkanization on the open source efforts of the future, as policymaker attention to these resources continues to grow and outpace the time and effort those consumers are willing to exert to be informed by any less commonly available service, no matter what the mystique.

16 September 2006

Victor Davis Hanson

The work of historian Victor Davis Hanson has in the past several years been absolutely unique in helping to place the Long War in a wider military perspective. It is often easy, even for professionals, to lose sight of the features which render the current conflict a thing apart.

While he has long published frequently online at various sites such as National Review and City Journal, as well as his own Private Papers site; he has started blogging at Works and Days.

The insight into the less than formal workings of the good author's mind is much appreciated, and will no doubt be quite valuable. It is also a further object lesson in the surprising changes in the dissemination of ideas which has been wrought by the growth of the blogosphere.

Microsoft and the sacrifice of human lifetimes in the Parallel World...

Noted science fiction author Charles Stross, himself a sometimes commentator on the world of intelligence in fiction, brings an interesting perspective to the manpower demands of upcoming operating system releases from Microsoft.

Microsoft are predicting that this ravenous new operating system will demand the sacrifice of 50,000 extra human lifetimes to keep offices across the EU running. That fifty thousand people are going to be sucked into the thankless task of software support and system administration for no functional gain — not to bring the benefits of computing to new users, this is simply to keep the wheels turning. It's money for digging holes in a field and then filling them in again: pointless make-work that should be automated out of existence rather than lauded.

Setting aside his religious criticisms, his points regarding the meaningless waste of human capital due to inefficient and cumbersome software and systems architecture is nonetheless striking. In the community, this is not simply an abstract matter for philosophy – those lifetimes wasted are in essence casualties of war from a type of informational fratricide in the Parallel World. And given the rapacious demands for talent and energy imposed by the current GWOT in all its many name space variations, we can little afford to suffer such losses of time and attention; particularly as it consumes the more technically savvy and intellectually able members of our tribe.

Any manager who wasted the time of his analytical staff in say, handwriting cables to pass around the office, to later hand courier those products from office to office and then retyping them anew; would rightfully be disciplined (not to mention considered a fool or worse). But because the virtual equivalent of such behaviors are enshrined in the common office software and the typical workflows of organizations using such software, it is considered just a part of doing business. Just consider the problem of aggregating key information from the multiple incompatible database systems every analyst faces on a daily basis; to say nothing of the search problem or the issues of recovering the context of thought streams after interruptions created by the almost deliberately distracting user interfaces of most systems, or the hellish environment of the typical cubicle farm or vault.

Again, these losses are not immediately apparent at first glance. But they occur, and corrosively sap the energy and morale of our best and brightest. This is the stuff of which intelligence failures are truly made.

10 September 2006


We apologize to any of our readers which have attempted to contact us during what became an unexpected long hiatus over the past six months.

This effort will likely be revived in the near future, although its form may change somewhat. Rest assured however that its focus will remain the same.