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16 May 2007

Revisiting immersion in intelligence analysis

We do not often seek to challenge the foundational principles of the modern understanding of the art and science of intelligence analysis. We are not given to the sort of hubris that would see us reinvent the wheel, only to name it after ourselves. Nor are we inclined to the sorts of navel gazing introspection that would parse ever finer meanings into well trod paths, when so much unexplored territory remains to be studied in our field.

But as the summer conference season approaches quick upon us, and the usual suspects begin to circulate their initial research from the long academic year, we find ourselves facing the strange and continued demonization of an analytic element that has been very key to our and many of our colleagues work over the years. It is strange, in a profession now flooded with post-Heuer imitators, to admit this – in some circles it is akin to announcing one’s support for the Pelagian heresy. We have written about this before, but we are increasingly finding ourselves advocates for the exploration of other pathways within analytic tradecraft, such as this and other techniques.

Immersion as an element of analytic tradecraft - we deliberately do not call it a strategy, given many critics claim that it is the essential result of a lack of analytic strategy - has been derisively held up as the bane of all structured analysis. Indeed, the end result of the activity may indeed be the opposite of structured approaches – but the activity itself (when conducted correctly) may be something entirely more and entirely different. We find ourselves in discussions with many analysts who are struggling to describe the moment when the complex amalgamation of substantive knowledge, target experience, and creative imagination align in the brief moment of insight and inspiration that arises of its own accord. Many lack the words to even begin to convey to outsiders the nature of this process.

We feel strongly that it is this lack of explanation, as much as anything else, which has been responsible for the misunderstanding of the cognitive process that has been called immersion in much of the literature. The descriptions of its spontaneous nature are much mocked by those who prefer their issues dissected neatly and laid out over a period of time – often years. And while this latter approach is useful in certain areas, particular in dealing with grand strategic issues and longer term think pieces, its alternative has developed for solid reasons beyond mere satisficing or intellectual laziness.

We suspect strongly that what successful analysts describe as immersion is actually a mental function akin to rapid cognition. This helps to explain why many analysts perform qualitatively better under conditions of time pressure and crisis levels of information flows. Their cultivated minds have developed the means by which they can assess, weigh, re-assemble, and concisely structure information, judgment, and prediction on the strength of their knowledge and experience. They do so rapidly and efficiently, relying upon areas of their minds which are poorly understood in cognitive science (and which has only recently begun to be researched.) But they often cannot describe the how and why of what they do – indeed, it can be a frustrating process for them when they attempt to make these processes more explicit, given their fundamentally internalized nature.

Successful analysts who rely on immersion / rapid cognition usually produce a small number of short form conclusions. They often focus on linchpin events, scenario projection, and indicator development when attempting to describe these conclusions. Very good analysts almost always present a second line of similar short form reasoning, in which judgments are put forth to encapsulate intelligence gaps and adversary denial and deception elements – also structured around conditional and contingent elements favoring proof through action or the development of new information, not through lengthy hypothesis testing. Many analysts develop their reasoning not through individual effort at the writing desk, but rather through the rapid exchange of ideas and energy with colleagues engaged on similar issues and tasks (although this is often a matter of personality, but such personalities are often drawn together at points in time when such an approach is most useful.)

These behaviors are in large part a function of the environments in which the analytic element of immersion / rapid cognition is most often encountered. These tend to be forward deployed locations, crisis cells, or fusion centers – where the pace of events and the flow of information tends to outstrip other more deliberative approaches to analysis. Here, latest time information of value is measured in minutes and hours, not days or months. These are outgoing, extroverted and high op-tempo environments, dominated by nearly overwhelming volumes of incoming data. Usually, they are environments which are poorly designed for the purpose at hand, but which have been created based on other considerations (whether set design “cool” factor or field expediency.)

For as important as these environments are, and for as many new and similar uses are being encountered, we have seen little effort to research or develop this frequently encountered analytic element. Instead, we as a community are facing a bizarre situation where less skilled disciples of a chosen belief system roam the halls, clutching a single text and rapping the knuckles of any who dare to disagree with the neatly ranked order of theory laid out in its pages. Meanwhile, entire cultures are built – and many intelligence professionals may spend their entire careers under such circumstances without ever needing or finding utility in other approaches. But the value they might find in the systematic evaluation of the immersion / rapid cognition approach, in order to identify what actually works for successful analysts, and why, is ignored. Worse yet, it is an aspect of the tradecraft left uncaptured even as those who have successfully used it retire and depart, and in their place enter the ranks of those trained in the dominant tradition, but who find themselves lost in an environment their training and education neither prepared them for or even described.

We will no doubt write on this matter again in more detail. For now, we are still observing the manner in which this exploration plays out, both through our own humble efforts and those of some very wise individuals around us.

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