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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Enemies of Intelligence

Post partly based on Chapter 3 of Organizational Intelligence by Harold Wilensky, published in 1967, in which he identifies a number of factors that can impair organizational intelligence.

Hierarchy and status

  • Hierarchy encourages concealment and misrepresentation (for example, hiding bad news).
  • Low status knowledge and insight is undervalued. For example, the warning signs of Pearl Harbour were seen and understood by subordinate officers, but this intelligence did not reach Army and Navy chiefs.
  • Emphasis on loyalty and conformity - stifles new ideas and critical questions.
  • Steep promotion ladder creates divide between those focused on personal career advancement and those focused on personal survival.
Wilensky identifies three possible remedies.
  • Flatter hierarchies
  • Single issue task forces (IBM identified as an early practitioner of this approach)
  • Alternative communication channels

Specialization and rivalry

  • Fragmentation of knowledge and insight - nobody has the "big picture".
  • Fragmentation of responsibility - nobody willing to tackle the difficult issues. For example, in 1950, nobody had the courage to tell Truman and McArthur that they might be mistaken about China's strategy for Korea. (This also links to the status question, see above.)
  • A more recent example is the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI, said to be a contributory factor in the intelligence failures prior to September 2001.

Wilensky argues that if there is an organizational structure and leadership that can contain the rivalry and construct the big picture, then healthy competition can have a positive effect on intelligence. He cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appears to have managed this reasonably well. However, successes of this kind are probably the exception rather than the rule.

Centralization and concentration

Intelligence (sense-making, decision-making, learning) too remote from What-Is-Going-On (WIGO). (Note that Wilensky's appreciation of the limitations of central intelligence predates by several decades the Power-to-the-Edge doctrine.)

Centralized intelligence can create a false illusion of reliability (Wilensky's example is the CIA's misreading of the Bay of Pigs episode), and therefore a single point of failure.

However, Wilensky does advocate some degree of centralization and concentration, arguing that distribution of intelligence (especially geographical distribution) risks spreading the intelligence too thinly. While we may agree that some clustering and communication is still valuable, we no longer have to assume this means geographical proximity. We may also note that Wilensky was writing at a time when only a minority of the workforce would have had a college education, and despite his concerns about status quoted above, he does sometimes talk as if he expected the main contribution to organizational intelligence to come from the educated members of the workforce. Nowadays, we should want organizational intelligence to be more rigorously inclusive.


A lot of intelligence activity places undue emphasis on secret sources and secret deliberations, not just in the military sphere but also in the commercial sphere. Wilensky argues that this emphasis can have a distorting effect, and points out that some extremely successful intelligence activities during the Second World War were based on detailed analysis of public sources.

Secrecy has the following pitfalls
  • secret information is more difficult to verify
  • unverified secret information is often given more weight than verified non-secret information
  • secret information is restricted to a small circle of people with appropriate security clearance
  • people with alternative opinions don't get security clearance, so the system perpetuates a narrow viewpoint
  • lack of critical appraisal, intolerance of alternative views
One of the examples Wilensky quotes in his book is the extraordinary deception played by the British against German intelligence during the Second World War, in an episode known as Operation Mincemeat. Malcolm Gladwell (who has also been reading Wikensky's book) has just published an account of this story in the New Yorker, under the title Pandora's Briefcase (May 2010). As Gladwell comments, "the proprietary kind of information that spies purvey is so much riskier than the products of rational analysis. Rational inferences can be debated openly and widely. Secrets belong to a small assortment of individuals, and inevitably become hostage to private agendas". Quite so.


Besides an obsession with security, Wilensky identifies two other unhelpful doctrines that may be embedded in the organizational culture.

  • An obsession with facts (naive empiricism). The notion that intelligence should be based on simple facts, uncontaminated by interpretation or agenda. Wilensky attributes this notion to a kind of anti-intellectualism, an antagonism towards ideology or theory, and an exaggerated belief in practical experience.
  • An obsession with prediction and probability. The notion that intelligence is trying to establish some degree of certainty about the future, and therefore an emphasis on closed questions (Will China attack Korea? Does Iraq possess WMD?) rather than open questions (What factors may influence China's policy in the region?) Because intelligence analysts can't provide Yes/No answers to these closed questions, they end up being forced to assign probabilities to future events, although these probabilities are fairly meaningless and unhelpful.

So these are among the factors we'll be looking at when assessing an organization for intelligence. Please contact me if you want to carry out an assessment for your organization.

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