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Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Psychology of Organizational Intelligence

A few writers have started to make some interesting connections between business intelligence and cognitive psychology, including references to a CIA paper called The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis written in 1999 by Richards J Heuer jr.

The flaws in military intelligence have been widely discussed in the media. I have already discussed the writings of Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker; and Wayne references an article in the Boston Globe by Robert Jervis, Think Different CIA.

Heuer offers some detailed procedures (we might call them "best practices") for avoiding some known cognitive errors of intelligence and decision-making, and there may be some opportunities for building some of these practices into management training and team-building exercises as well as into the tools and platforms supporting organizational intelligence.

In a well-functioning team, healthy debate should reduce the incidence of cognitive error. However, many organizations display various forms of dysfunctional behaviours (such as bullying or groupthink), which tend to amplify cognitive error. This takes us from cognitive psychology into other aspects of organizational psychology.

There is also the question whether the intelligence failures are primarily cognitive or something else. Perhaps Treverton's distinction between puzzles and mysteries (which I picked up via Malcolm Gladwell) is relevant here. (See my post on Puzzles and Mysteries.)

Heuer's paper predates a couple of embarrassing failures for the US intelligence community - the failure to anticipate the September 11th attacks, and the false assessment of WMD in Iraq. So either Heuer's recommendations were not implemented or they were not sufficient. A more recent CIA paper suggests the latter: "The dysfunctional practices and processes that have evolved within the culture of intelligence analysis go well beyond the classic impediments highlighted by Richards Heuer in The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" [Curing Analytic Pathologies: Pathways to Improved Intelligence Analysis].

I like the concept of "analytic pathologies" because that provides a good starting point for assessing and addressing the various blocks to organizational intelligence we can observe in most commercial and government organizations. Clearly the cognitive errors identified by Heuer are important, but they are often going to be symptoms of some deeper pathology. Even if "best practice" fully addresses the cognitive errors, we are going to need "next practice" to address the deeper stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points! I'm looking forward to delving more deeply into some of these reports. Over and over, we see organizations using the same processes to create large complex systems that have failed repeatedly in the past. The answer to this must be one of the analytic pathologies. This blog is great food for thought.