Jan 15, 2010

It takes intelligence to review & deliver intelligence

This is the most amazing and honest report I have read. This Major General (U.S. Major General Michael Flynn) has shown huge courage to be brutally honest about the intelligence failings in the Afghan campaign and typically the press reports and the Pentagon have dumped on him. This is one reason the USA and its allies will win, because they learn (at least I hope they do). I would also hope that his maverick behaviour does not end up harming him, but given the courage and intelligence shown by General Petraeus and General McChrystal, his two respective bosses, I think not. But let us get back to the report and what a report it is! It is brutally honest. It cuts across the fog of organisational chaos by the ton and homes in directly, in a few short pages, on exactly where the problem is, giving some examples of where they are going right now and what they need to do.

But first the background. This report was written by the Head of Military Intelligence of the US forces in Afghanistan as a review report on how intelligence gathering is happening, what the objectives are, what the drawbacks are, and how to improve the procedures so it benefits the senior military leaders and the political masters.

Reading this report will also help the generals and ministers of any other country currently facing an insurgency or dealing with a terrorist campaign. If you look at Thailand, India, Pakistan, China, etc., they all need to read this report.

However, it is not only a must read for those, but actually also for those who are also facing not just direct insurgency campaigns. Are the people in the United Kingdom who are being faced with a domestic British Muslim terrorist campaign reading this? Are they adapting the lessons learnt from Afghanistan in this intelligence evaluation report with respect to the Islamic societies in British Universities and the mosques in the UK? The quiet neighbourhood doctor or engineer who is secretly planning to blow up a building or nightclub? How are the links between the society, the mosques, the press, the NGOs, the charities, the police, MI5 & MI6 and the ministers being managed?

I don’t think this is only applicable to terrorism or the military. I think this is equally applicable to big firms and financial institutions. Here’s a question you can ask any grand poobah of strategy or CEO or head of planning. Do they have a strategy for collecting product, customer, market, country, regulator, and other types of information which is relevant to what head of the business needs to know? Have they ever run a review akin to what this report does?  How do they know the mass of information being produced at the coalface (and believe you me, there is a whole load of information that is produced - ranging from product information, customer details, trading details, supply chain information, contact reports and emails, etc. )? How are they aggregated, distributed, sliced, fed up, sideways and down the chain? I quote from the report:

“Creating effective intelligence is an inherent and essential responsibility of command. Intelligence failures are failures of command – [just] as operations failures are command failures.”

In other words, if you as a senior manager are not getting sufficient information, then the responsibility of getting that information is yours, not somebody else’s and you need to take responsibility for this The execution, however, can be done by your head of MI, sales, COO, etc. etc.

There are absolute gems hidden in this report, which again have implications for both the military and civilian businesses. I am going to quote them and try to comment on them to clarify what I mean.

The second inescapable truth asserts that merely killing insurgents usually serves to multiply enemies rather than subtract them. This counterintuitive dynamic is common in many guerrilla conflicts and is especially relevant in the revenge-prone Pashtun communities whose cooperation military forces seek to earn and maintain. The Soviets experienced this reality in the 1980s, when despite killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans, they faced a larger insurgency near the end of the war than they did at the beginning.

This is far too common. Just measure the number of body bags (as was done in Vietnam), or the number of meetings held with customers or the revenue per customer, etc, these are often metrics that are used to judge progress or performance. But is that really what the military or corporate strategy is? No, that’s not it. The military strategy is to provide security and allow or support a fairly stable governance in Afghanistan so the Taliban’s bent of ideology and governance backed by their rage boys cannot take root. Yes, there are other requirements as well, but the objective is not to kill the Taliban, but to take the moral, civil, economic and military ground away from them. This might mean (and does mean) popping off the relevant commanders and does include having fire-fights, but you don’t measure by this metric. One needs intelligence and analysis to supports decision making. Similarly on the business front, far too often metrics drive management and strategy. We need to grab customer loyalty. No, we want customers to not only give us their business, but help us get more business by recommending us to other customers. That cannot be achieved, managed and delivered by measuring the number of calls you make to the customer, it needs a much broader sense of information. Otherwise, what you will end with is a huge body count or a huge list of contact reports, but lose the war or the business.

What are the barriers in getting this information?

“The barriers to maximizing available intelligence are surprisingly few. The deficit of data needed by high-level analysts does not arise from a lack of reporting in the field. There are literally terabytes of unclassified and classified information typed up at the grassroots level. Nor, remarkably, is the often-assumed unwillingness to share information the core of the problem. On the contrary, military officers and civilians working with ISAF allies, and even many NGOs, are eager to exchange information. True, there are severe technological hurdles, such as the lack of a common database and digital network available to all partners, but they are not insurmountable.

People often think that they need a giant new CRM system, network, or a database or that they have to establish big hairy governance bodies aligned with massive organisational transformation or dual / triple reporting lines. Not really, frankly that is rarely the problem. But it’s an easy solution, mind you, because it provides a concrete “something” that you can touch and deliver. Why do most of the business intelligence projects fail? They do because the fixation is on the damn system, database, network and not on the information or the culture or the strategy. An example where many of these issues have been resolved and fixed is the investment banking business, which is perhaps one of the most efficient legal sustainable moneymaking organisations known to man, with the exception of loan sharking or drug running or Ponzi trading. Data is always there, people LOVE to talk and give you information. But one needs to listen, read, review, pass up and down and sideways. See what the report says further:

The most salient problems are attitudinal, cultural, and human. The intelligence community’s standard mode of operation is surprisingly passive about aggregating information that is not enemy-related and relaying it to decision-makers or fellow analysts further up the chain. It is a culture that is strangely oblivious of how little its analytical products, as they now exist, actually influence commanders.
It is also a culture that is emphatic about secrecy but regrettably less concerned about mission effectiveness.1 To quote General McChrystal in a recent meeting, “Our senior leaders – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States – are not getting the right information to make decisions with. We must get this right. The media is driving the issues. We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political decision makers.”

I would add another factor when discussing the impact on commercial firms. We have lost layers of middle management in the previous few decades, which has had an impact on the organisational ability to aggregate. I have nothing much further to add to the points above. Pretty self explanatory, no?

Nowhere does our group suggest that there is not a significant role for intelligence to play in finding, fixing, and finishing off enemy leaders. What we conclude is there must be a concurrent effort under the ISAF commander’s strategy to acquire and provide knowledge about the population, the economy, the government, and other aspects of the dynamic environment we are trying to shape, secure, and successfully leave behind. Until now, intelligence efforts in this area have been token and ineffectual, particularly at the regional command level. Simply put, the stakes are too high for the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan, for NATO’s credibility, and for U.S. national security for us to fail in our intelligence mission. The urgent task before us is to make our intelligence community not only stronger but, in a word, “relevant.”

We are now faced with a set of very challenging, complex economic, social and political conditions across the world. This will require intelligence, information and data to be provided to managers - up and down the chain - in a significantly different manner. The firms which manage to crack this will win. I don’t have to tell you the changes that we are going to face in the next 3-5 years, but how to react to them? Well, a good management information, business intelligence, strategy and planning function can assist in doing this much better. In other words, yes, deal with the tactical bits, but don’t forget the strategy and the broader basis for analysis.

The example of Nawa was brilliant. Within the British area of operations, they were getting killed day in and day out. And the British thought the Americans knew nothing about COIN. Now look at what the Americans did. This might well be conflicting information and may be counted as national chest thumping, but by heck, the 1st Btn, 5th Marines gave an example of how to wage broad war. He quotes an example of how they avoided the issue of logistical problems.

The battalion intelligence officers refused to allow the absence of a data network to impede the flow of information. Each night, the deputy intelligence officer hosted what he called “fireside chats,” during which each analyst radioed in from his remote position at a designated time and read aloud everything learned over the last 24 hours. Using this approach, daily reports incorporated a wide variety of sources: unclassified patrol debriefs; the notes of officers who had met with local leaders; the observations of civil affairs officers; and classified HUMINT reports. The deputy intelligence officer typed up a master report of everything called in by analysts and closed each “chat session” by providing them with an updated list of questions – called “intelligence requirements” – for the companies to attempt to answer.
In the earliest days of the operation, many of these questions dealt with basic logistical matters, such as the location and conditions of roads, bridges, mosques, markets, wells, and other key terrain. Once these were answered, however, the focus shifted to local residents and their perceptions. What do locals think about the insurgents? Do they feel safer or less safe with us around? What disputes exist between villages or tribes? As the picture sharpened, the focus honed in on identifying what the battalion called “anchor points” – local personalities and local grievances that, if skillfully exploited, could drive a wedge between insurgents and the greater population. In other words, anchor points represented the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities.

Please note the second paragraph above. This shows that a smart intelligence officer (or a BI person in a corporation) understand the value of time. The same questions will not be asked all the time, there is an element of time, and things move on, questions change, the environment changes, you build on what you have got, evolve your strategy and questions. This means that it’s a learning organisation. It’s an important point which is often forgotten, that just when you have found the answer to the question, somebody goes and changes the question. Your organisation should have the ability to understand this, crack this an be able to handle these changes and then evolve to answer the changed question.

The report then moves into a detailed discussion of how the recommendations will work out in the Afghan theatre, which is very much unique to Afghanistan, presuming he knows more than I on the situation on the ground and will not comment more on this part. However, the organisation that he is suggesting is eerily similar to how commercial organisations are also setup. It might be an idea for commercial analysts to check back or back-test their MI or BI organisation and operating model against this. It might give them some ideas.

Like the NGO’s mentioned on page 20, the investor relations department and the corporate communications department could benefit from these organisational and operating model recommendations. They frequently need this information for the analysts, the shareholders, the regulators, press, etc. etc. Good information like this will almost certainly have a definite impact on the stock price and on the reputational risk of the firm.

So what do you do? I loved this quote:

Doing so will require important cultural changes. Analysts must absorb information with the thoroughness of historians, organize it with the skill of librarians, and disseminate it with the zeal of journalists.

Brilliant! This is an absolutely stonking formulation. It’s pretty straightforward and you know immediately what you need to do. We know what historians, librarians and journalists do and we can relate to that function.

There’s another great comment:

The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and colour-coded spreadsheets are satisfactory for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul-searching to do. Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency

I was perhaps one of the worst offenders for PowerPoint use, but over the past 4-5 years, I have realised the value of a word document. It forces people to think about what they are writing and arguing about, especially for senior management. People spend hours and days mucking around with graphics and fancy animation when a short summary of one-page distils things down. This forces people to think about what are they trying to achieve, what decision they want their audience to take and whether the information they are providing is enough to help them take that decision?

Here’s another interesting point:

Historical lessons run the risk of sounding portentous, but disregarding them comes at a high price. History is replete with examples of powerful military forces that lost wars to much weaker opponents because they were inattentive to nuances in their environment. A Russian general who fought for years in Afghanistan cited this as a primary reason for the Soviet Union’s failures in the 1980s

History is indeed a vast early warning system and people who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. I know, I know, you are going to tell me that nobody has ever won in Afghanistan, not in any war, at any time, but hey, guess what? They didn't do the nuances either. Think about how the Mughal Empire managed to rule over Afghanistan for such a long time. They were not locals, they were invaders as well, so if pointing to the British and Soviets as a reason for saying that NATO will lose in Afghanistan, one should realise that the Mughals did win.

While we are not adopting the Mughal way of conquest and rule, the reason I think we will win is because we have Generals who have the courage to write reports like this, others who have the patience to read it, the confidence to realise that we are going down a wrong route and the humility to make changes. As it so happens, the US Secretary of Defence has now stated that he loves the report and would like to see the recommendations implemented. Sometimes being a maverick helps.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt.


Tim said...

Thoughtful essay BD. The long held strategy of winning “hearts and minds” in armed conflict has come a long, long way from simply handing out goodies to the natives. Nation building, in terms of rebuilding infrastructure and earning the trust and confidence of the locals, is far more important to the effort than the kill count; the surge in Iraq the most recent successful example. Unfortunately that very human and critical slice of the mission is often unseen or misunderstood by most people. The media and Hollywood are mostly to blame.

I enjoyed reading the parallels and applicability of military Intel to the corporate world. Good Intel and the appropriate application of timely collected information is always the deciding factor to success or failure...no exceptions. It’s no surprise that military intelligence analysts are seldom lacking for employment in the civilian sector.

As for the courage and forthrightness of our military leadership, they are the best reflection of America. And in my biased but experienced opinion, the rule rather than exception.

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