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26 August 2008

Requirements management for the new generation

We frequently revisit the question of how the generation after next will change the activity of intelligence. It is ground that others have also slowly begun to come around to as the realities of the J-shaped workforce dawn across the community. As in many other areas of the workplace, generational changes tend to manifest themselves most visibly through technology. Thus it is the wiki and the blog which has more readily captured the imagination, while the less visible growth new models of ongoing production through informal networking brought about by the lists or the subtle changes in dissemination models driven by the Wire go largely un-remarked.

However, occasionally some changes are entirely striking not merely because of the realized technologies which have crept into the business of doing intelligence, but due to the aspirations of how a consumer would wish to see the activity done better (or at least, in a manner that better serves their particular cognitive and working style). These often frustrated desires for change are quite often poorly expressed, and rarely conveyed to the intelligence producers in any event.

Despite this, every once in a while there is something that a consumer may bring to the table from another life experience – typically outside of the intelligence domain entirely – that convincingly encapsulates both the shortcomings of the current approach and a possible model for examination of a new innovation. We enjoyed such a conversation the other day, the result of a highly technology savvy consumer’s attempt to grapple with a restricting “classic” intelligence structure that simply did not conform to the manner in which they had come to rely upon to satisfy other content needs.

We speak of course of the now standard approach to requirements management wherein a new consumer is asked to define collaboratively their Key Intelligence Topics (popularized in the private sector by the notable work of Jan Herring, having been drawn from the gentleman’s experiences as a National Intelligence Officer at a time when similar approaches drove national intelligence priorities). This is a valuable exercise, both for its role in drawing out a consumer’s concerns, pre-existing baseline knowledge, and assumptions as well as in helping set expectations regarding capabilities and deliverables. (There is a reason it first came into use and subsequently thrived after all).

The consumer in this particular case simply did not wish for the exercise to be a one time affair, or even something periodically revisited in accordance with some calendar schedule. Rather, having been taught by other information delivery environments that such a thing was possible, this decision-maker asked for a queue to which he could add, delete, and re-prioritize his own requirements as he chose. The model he cited for this was the Netflix video rental service, which offered this kind of flexibility.

This model is actually quite insightful. While one must overlook the key difference that good intelligence is not simply a pre-packaged mass market product sitting in some warehouse waiting to be sent out upon demand, and that intelligence questions should always be accompanied by scoping discussions, it is actually quite easy to modify and present such an interface for validated requirements that have been accepted by the intel staff (and to capture the additional conversations regarding objectives and terms of reference). The model also provided an unexpected benefit, in that the consumer already was willing to take into account the delay between request and production, having been trained to expect a few days turn around time for the postal mail delivery of the familiar red envelope. (For our British friends, the parallel to the equally classic red box presented to senior ministers is inescapable.)

Unfortunately such requests are infrequently captured by those in a position to implement the requisite changes even when a consumer does at last find a way to articulate what they are seeking. And while national requirements management exercises are far more involved things under the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, the back and forth of production on a smaller and more situated scale is entirely within the realm of the possible. Answering the inevitable next demand of delivering such an interface over their Blackberry – classified or otherwise – may however be entirely harder, at least in government service (commercial intelligence counterparts will likely be less constrained).

For those consumers that do not wish to actually use such an interface themselves, a periodic copy of the queue can be provided for discussion, and changes made by a briefer, unit manager, or other consumer outcomes oriented professional. In this it is little different than the classic requirements model, but it does offer additional opportunities for more dynamic engagement with the ongoing concerns of the policymaker. And we strongly believe that as the generational shifts also take hold within the ranks of key intelligence consumers, so too will the willingness to embrace already familiar processes in new contexts.

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