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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.