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07 May 2007

Teaching man to fish…

Among our recent struggles has been the increasingly difficult problem of cultivating a wider systems and strategic level viewpoint in intelligence professionals, not only regarding target accounts and substantive analysis efforts, but also in terms of how their contribution supports the intelligence community as a whole.

This is not an easy task. Strategic thinking remains one of the more difficult subjects to effectively convey in any classroom or on the job setting. True application of strategic level insights requires both a body of subject matter expertise but also experiential epiphanies of meaning and interactions across traditionally stove-piped domains and separated vaults.

It is a task also not made easier by many of the traditional means by which intelligence professionals are taught to perform, particularly those which demand adherence to specific methodology or a set series of templates for production. These include the entire academic model used as a template, in which production merely mirrors common styles used for journal articles or research papers in international affairs, political science, or other common disciplines within the ivory tower – a practice which may produce more readable material but often fails to address key aspects of utility and consumer outcomes. The academic model, however, remains all too prevalent within the intelligence community due to the emphasis on transcripts in hiring and promotion. Other templates may be derived from military reporting formats, used more generally across other disciplines due to individual or organizational familiarity; or even journalistic styles, adopted for current intelligence reporting but which pose their own unique problems in an increasingly mediated age.

We as a community are faced with increasing numbers of individuals which approach their profession as a series of set piece problems to be dealt with using processes and techniques set forth in manuals or in customary usage. This is all very well and good when those individuals are working in established functions and on target accounts with which the community has historic interest and experience; as those practices have been evolved from the collective experience and unique strategic thought of many a veteran practitioner. These practices as a body are often revisited over time through both formal and informal mechanisms of discussion and validation, as accounts pass from hand to hand and as new case studies are developed to help capture and pass along core tradecraft useful to those accounts.

However, when those same professionals who perform well in such existing assignments are placed into new roles in functions which previously did not exist (or were not codified and collected into a formal position), they frequently founder. Many are unable to articulate the reasons behind the success of previous practice, nor identify other applicable examples of tradecraft which might be applied to new types of target problems. Instead, they are often frustrated by repeated and futile attempts to pound their square peg templates into holes whose shape has not yet even been charted. Accidental successes of timing and interest are held up as proof of success of inadequate models, and when such successes prove fleeting individual analysts are often castigated for what are perceived as personal mistakes despite the clear failings of management dictates.

There are those that can see above the daily grind of production and coordination, but they are often unable to express or ill-positioned to correct the course of the model. Indeed, these are the professionals most likely to burn out fast as they struggle both to overcome specific problems and issues in order to perform to the best standard possible, but also to take on entire systems and personalities to ensure others around them can also succeed. The departure of these rare individuals from units can have devastating effects on the value of functional teams, but unfortunately this is only usually recognized too late (if at all).

Now, we do not expect junior analysts or collectors to both master the art and science of their trade, the substantive aspects of their target account, and still have the bandwidth to look beyond their individual role to see systems as a whole. But frankly, we wish to see them better equipped to do so as they progress through the brutal learning curves of this profession; and ironically we are finding that older approaches to professional induction appear to have been actually better at accomplishing that task in the medium to long term. We strongly believe one of the keys to the older approaches (now fallen out of favour) is the delegation of significant early responsibility for design, execution, and management of specific encapsulated assignments; supported by available references and mentoring – but otherwise essentially on their own.

This philosophy does risk the successful outcome of initial products. In reality, it usually only risks a “re-do” of the task, typically by a more experienced veteran – something that happens frequently in assignments handed to developing juniors anyway, but with less potential for learning and growth. It is understandably difficult for senior professionals and line managers to watch junior staff make their own mistakes, and stumble through things their superiors so long ago internalized as to make them baseline assumptions of worldview. But there is a kind of value to that experience (especially when gently guided from the outside) that expresses itself down the road in better more systems oriented and strategic thinking, particularly if after action review and lessons learned processes are institutionalized within a unit.

These factors are one of the reasons the case study method is so successful, and why exercise environments can be rewarding far out of proportion to the resource investment required to bring them about. However, it takes a certain level of strategic perspective on the part of management to create conditions to cultivate their staff, including a deliberate suppression of the “old hand expert” mythos (itself quite damaging in the absence of smoking mirror), and a willingness to invest in internal development – things not easily found in the current climate which characterizes many GS-15 and SES offices.

There is hope on the horizon, though. The issues surrounding strategic thinking are receiving increasing attention in community circles, as are the questions of how it can be taught and otherwise cultivated. One of the key reasons we remain optimistic is the recent shift in emphasis within the community from the kind of broad and sweeping reform proposals which are the domain of agency heads and legislative / executive interaction toward a more narrowly constructed approach, which take core principals of the revolution in intelligence affairs and applies them not toward shuffling organograms and budget lines but in the pursuit of small, achievable changes that can have immediate impact on units and the consumers they serve.

In a way, this shift mirrors a similar dynamic observed by technologist Clay Shirky in the software development world, in which general mass programming solutions were seen to be supplanted by smaller and more tailored applications designed for specific niche roles within defined groups of users. Shirky refers to these new approaches as “situated software”, and we believe they are a natural reflection of the increasing demand pressures of customization by software consumers.

These same pressures are a work in the intelligence community, but without cultivating new strategic perspective they will not be satisfied.

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