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23 August 2007

Body shops and the salt mines of the intelligence industry

One of the most pervasive problems in retaining talents and experience intelligence professions is the terrible consequences of dysfunctional HR and line management processes. We have discussed many times the symptoms of these issues previously, especially as they relate to the unique geographic, economic, and social milieu of the greater Washington DC metro area.

Many of these symptoms stem from the same underlying cause – the inappropriate perception of analysis activities within the “business” of the intelligence enterprise. Too often, the increasing push towards layers of middle management and houses ever more fines divided into “highly polished cylinders of excellence” has led to the perception that the first line of analytic production is simply a routine thing that is the inevitable result of assembling junior staff into co-located spaces in some Taylorite fantasy of efficiency and output. The black box of complex knowledge work is not easy to represent in most organograms and process charts, so it is often simply ignored or taken for granted. Thus, there has been a creeping in of far too industrialized a set of metaphors into the lexicon of the cottage industry of intelligence reform and transformation studies. The end result of this choice of the wrong model is a mismatch between working level perceptions, desires, and ultimately morale on the one hand – and on the other, the policies, priorities, and effectiveness of most management.

The business of intelligence is, and will remain, a craft profession. It is distinctly not amenable to industrialization in classic bureaucratic models, and it is most effective when its informal guilds are encouraged to grow organically through the mentoring of younger members in an apprenticeship and journeyman fashion, honed within a common culture and shared sense of community.

In the contemporary intelligence environment, we fear too much of these key dynamics are not only being lost through inattention and misunderstanding, but deliberately being destroyed in the service of flawed ideologies of management. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the convulsive evolution of intelligence privatization. We are strong proponents of contracting activities in intelligence, both as a result of our beliefs in the theoretical benefits of a more market-based approach to utilizing scare talent and other resources more effectively, but also from our personal experiences seeing the flexibility, initiative, and inter-disciplinary / cross-domain benefits brought by the private sector to the intelligence community’s problem space.

Yet the current manner in which intelligence privatization is managed often illustrates the deeper problems which occur when the profession’s craft nature is ignored. We have seen too many contracting shops in which intelligence professionals – particularly those in the analyst, watchstander, and operational roles – fall under structures developed originally for engineering, software development, or even physical services functions. The disconnects that arise in such cases are rarely more clear cut anywhere else in the community. Thus we see a troubling trends in the increasing number of body shops, in which a clearance and a heartbeat are the only pre-requisites for entry, and success is not measured by the quality of the effort but by how many billets (and at what margin) the PM can staff - and the government client manager can command to grow their own personal fiefdom and institutional rice bowl. The line professionals – those that actually are engaged in the art & science itself – are physically sequestered and culturally disconnected at a client site, isolated in practice from corporate structures who do not share their world or even understand day to day struggles and ongoing concerns. The limited contact with higher echelons that does infrequently occur is all too often not a good occasion: contract changes, irrelevant managerial blather, or feel good boosterism that does nothing to speak to the working lives of those at the coal face and does even less to help their morale.

It is not surprising that such shops face staggering turn-over and declining brand images within a closely knit community comprised in no small measure of professional with prior experience cutting across a number of shops. Many corporate entities are almost entirely unaware of these effects, as they occur not in the shiny offices of a Tyson’s business park but in the back halls of some SCIF floor a “remote” client sites. Such shops often cannot conceive of an alternative, let alone understand how their turnover costs them more than the time a billet is unfilled (or that HR must spend to find a new candidate.) These kinds of shops do not grasp the nature of intellectual capital – and indeed, much of what they rely on in the first place to drive their business came not from the cultivation of their staff but was purchased in the form of prior service employees.

Not all shops in the private sector are so short-sighted, just as many government sections too often share the same flaws and worse. Good shops are becoming increasingly easy to distinguish from the bad ones. Good shops are the ones with senior management frequently on-site, and not just for business development or to watch over the shoulders of their staffers. They are the shops whose authority has been devolved from the unreachable heights of some corporate hierarchy vertical to a flattened structure within easy reach of the line. They maintain robust communities of interest, tying together professionals in billets across contracts and clients, and even outside of their firms. Good shops are the ones in which ongoing training and education is not only available but actively encouraged – and which provide internal and functional alternatives to key government schools which are all too frequently closed to contractors (even if they are staffed but contract instructors, and teach blue badgers with identical jobs as their green badge counterparts.) Most critically, these are the shops in which advancement in the profession is not divorced from advancement in the firm, as is the case for many of knowledge workers with specialized key skills and abilities.

For its part, the government side of the contracting equation must do more to encourage good shops by finding and rewarding these strategies when awarding new work. The IC must provide more opportunities to its contract workforce to pursue their own cultivation – including opening previously locked professional development pathways, even if it means a dramatic expansion in the school houses will be required. The self defeating but ever more common dynamics of treating contractors as second class citizens, seen as necessary but barely tolerated evils, has to end. This also means an end to the too easy attempts at the politicization of privatization as an issue every time a new contract award comes up, or a new study is crafted. Given the percentages of contractors in the community, and the key role they play in major programs (especially in comparison to the kinds of tasks that government assignments often entail), if the IC cannot re-conceptualize itself in a manner that includes such a large part of its contributors, it cannot sustain or grow itself as an institution.

And in turn, if contracting shops cannot re-invent themselves - no matter that origins or culture of their parent company – into agile, knowledge based and analyst/operator centric organizations, they will be unable to survive in the intelligence market over the long term. The IC as a marketplace will not be just another few quarters, but rather decade of change under unique dynamics at the close of a historical epoch and the birth of its successor. Only those shops which can come to terms with this, in a strategic and futures oriented perspective, will survive the shakeups which are most surely coming down the difficult roads which lie ahead.

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