From Myths to Realities to Progress: How to Improve the Quality of Analysts in the Private Intel/Political Risk Industries

I’ve spent many weeks identifying the myths prevalent in the field of private intelligence and political risk (many of which the industry has actively perpetuated) and the realities of working in these fields over the last 5 years. Although I haven’t covered all of the myths yet, I do think it’s time for a more optimistic post, one that focuses on how to improve the political risk industry. Not surprisingly, I’d like to start with the people- the analysts and consultants and project managers who make political risk firms function. We can only fix many of the industry’s issues by hiring, training and enabling the right people. We’re failing miserably at this. First, we need to correctly identify the skills necessary to excel in the field. Only then can we find people with skills to match those needs. Obviously, there are a few basic skills: research skills, analytical skills, oral and written communication skills, familiarity with the Microsoft Office Suite, as well as the ability to collaborate, multi-task and work in fast paced environment, while paying attention to detail. This probably sounds like countless job postings you’ve seen in just about any industry, and that’s exactly the problem.

Step 1: Write better job descriptions, and know what skills are truly needed.

Private intelligence and political risk are not just like any other industry, and they require a very particular set of skills. Ideally, they’re polymaths, or at least philomaths. In addition to all of the skills mentioned above, intelligence analysts and political risk consultants need to possess curiosity, know how to ask the right questions (and have the persistence to find the right answer), have a vibrant imagination, and be able to absorb, comprehend, analyze and apply vast amounts of information very quickly. This includes being able to read maps, remember the names of leaders, understand statistics and be familiar with a wide spectrum of cultures, as well as having a nuanced understanding of business processes and how they are affected by political risks. Good analysts and consultants have to be able to think several steps ahead, to see connections, causes and consequences of events.

Step 2: Establish more effective interview processes.

Right now, the hiring process in the fields of private intel and political risk basically consists of a couple rounds of interviews where candidates are asked basic questions (What’s your greatest strength? Biggest weakness?) and a writing test, and occasionally case study analysis. I don’t really care if someone’s biggest weakness is that they have trouble saying “no” to people. I can teach them to prioritize tasks and feel empowered to tell managers when they’re overloaded with work. I can’t teach people to be naturally inquisitive or very creative. I want to see someone define political and geopolitical risk, and to give a short presentation with analysis of a recent international development. I want to watch them think on their feet as they tell me why it’s important, whom it’ll affect and 3 scenarios for where things can go in the future. I want to hear their ideas for how a fictional client could navigate the situation to minimize disruptions to their business. I want to know what products they would offer the fictional client to keep them from running into the same problem or keep them better informed of their risk environment. Not only would such a trial by fire tell me whether the candidate possesses all the skills I value, but it would also weed out lots of candidates who seem good on paper, but would likely be disappointing analysts and consultants. I don’t want to watch them flounder for three months, when a 15-minute presentation and a conversation can minimize the torture and lost time for both parties.

Step 3: Stop hiring typical candidates and expand the pool of possible candidates by targeting smart people early. The types of people being hired by these firms can generally be grouped into 4 categories:

1)   People who’ve spent 3 months to 3 years at a government agency. Why? Their alphabet soup government agency experience lends credence to analytical teams. “We have analysts who’ve spent time in the FBI/CIA/DIA! We must know what we’re doing.” The problem? These people didn't spend enough time there to really become immersed and succeed in their position, since they left, likely signifying that they weren’t good enough to get promoted. Or, they spent long enough there to get burned out because they were so frustrated with bureaucracy and now just want a position where they can coast and “re-charge.” Neither makes for a stellar analyst. They also lack business expertise. 

2)   People who’ve previously worked at a think tank. Why? These people know how to research and write but they’re used to spending months doing research and writing dense reports, not quick turn two-pagers outlining the major threats to shipping firms in Asia. They usually have good networks- that are full of other think tankers. There’s nothing wrong with these people at first blush, but they often lack any business experience and therefore could explain the finer points of the Yemen conflict but couldn’t tell you why it affects a firm’s supply chain. I’d prefer someone who worked in a small logistics company, who likely got to understand the finer workings of business, over someone who’s only ever done research and never experienced how a business functions.

3)   People with a Masters degree and no real world experience. Why? A Masters degree is quickly becoming a pre-requisite for any decent paying job in political risk. As someone who went from undergrad straight to Georgetown’s SFS, I heartily endorse getting that MA ASAP, but only if you're sure of your path and have decent professional experience from your time in college. I worked in business, public relations, on campaigns, etc., throughout my time in undergrad, building an international network of contacts. Those who get a Masters degree with virtually no experience beyond a couple think tank internships are unlikely to have a vibrant network. When you’re being vetted by a private intel or political risk firm, the strength of your network becomes one of your biggest assets.

4)   People who are straight out of undergrad and speak a language. Why? They speak a language! I love eager students straight out of undergrad. They’re usually energetic, curious, and good with technology. Most often, they’re hired because they studied a necessary language. The problem is that taking 4 years of a language makes a person a good walking interactive dictionary, but not necessarily a good analyst. I can always find someone in my network to translate something for me. What I usually need is someone who also knows the culture, particularly the business culture, of the country where that language is spoken.  This leads me to my next step.

Step 4: Do a better job of marketing the industry as a good career option.

Study abroad programs are increasingly popular and students are going abroad to a range of fascinating countries where they have the potential to strengthen language skills, learn a new culture and see the world from a different perspective. The industry needs to start getting on the radar of sophomores, who are choosing majors and planning their junior year experiences, and letting them know the private intelligence and political risk are great career paths. By reaching them early, we can help students better focus their study abroad programs to suit their strengths, take advantage of all that the experience has to offer, including interning in a foreign firm, and equip them with the foresight to know which knowledge and insight firms will value in candidates. If we can convince these students to engage in international affairs in addition to international cocktail parties, we can have shape a new generation of analysts who make the most of their time abroad and come back with knowledge, perspectives and a level of comfort being abroad that could greatly boost the value of our analytical teams.

Step 5: Institute interactive training programs.

Ah, orientation. The weeklong torture, I mean, "training process," usually includes boring, endless lectures directed at the recently hired cohort. They throw in everything from security and sign-in procedures to how to access files to how to fill out templates and even follow style guides. We’ve all been to classes where it makes sense when the teacher says it, but we get into trouble when doing it on our own. Why must we lock these poor shmucks, I mean analysts, into windowless rooms and drone on about dozens of things that they likely won’t absorb? Training should be an interactive process, not a passive listening experience. We should have them try to use the online platform, go to a mock client meeting or interview with a subject matter expert, design and deliver a mock presentation or draft a mock project. We need to give them feedback and point out oversights, and let them try again and watch them improve. We need to give these people an active role in their training. Yes, this takes time and effort, but the results are always better because they’re actually training to do something, running into obstacles and learning ways to address them while adopting company procedures. 

Of course, instituting these steps will only yield good results if a company is well managed and provides analysts with adequate work to challenge them and allow them to grow. A bad firm won't find any magic fixes in implementing these steps. Now that we’ve covered how to make sure we have the right people to do good analysis, I’ll discuss the ways in which we can improve our methodologies in the next post. 

Myths vs. Realities: Insights from the Fletcher School’s Managing Political Risk Conference

I had the opportunity to attend the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy’s Managing Political Risk Conference in Boston, MA, on Saturday, and wanted to share a few of my insights this week.  The conference provided an interesting window into the myths that the industry perpetuates- some of which I’ve covered in past posts (just scroll down). Those who are interested in reading my live-tweets of the event can search my Twitter feed, @MilenaRodban, using the hashtag #MPR2015.

The day-long conference consisted of panels on (R)evolutions in Political Risk Assessment; Investment and Operations in Complex Environments, and The Shifting Geopolitics of Oil and Gas. In each of the panels, there was some measure of sweeping and misleading generalizations, such as assertions that we now have “ubiquity of data” (wrong- we lack a great deal of information about some of the most intriguing places that we analyze, such as North Korea). This is one myth that the sector has a vested interest in perpetuating, given clients’ increasing desire to incorporate “big data analytics” into the products they order. Of course, you can only analyze data if there is data to analyze, and many firms claim to have proprietary methodologies for doing so. But not only do we lack a good deal of data, but we also lack the means to apply meaningful quantitative analytical techniques that can produce any useful results, if there are even any results to be found. Still others advocated for the need to institute certification procedures, because anyone can claim to do political risk now. The problem with that is that certification usually breeds standardization of thought, which we certainly don’t need in the field. What we need to methodological rigor, to adapt better analytical techniques to help our clients understand how we arrive at our conclusions.   

There were also some great insights, such as a spin on an old quote by Ezra Solomon: “the only function of political risk is to make astrology look respectable.” Indeed, as those of you who follow my Twitter feed know, I often call out bad analysis based on absolutely outlandish attempts at “gaming” the future. I was surprised and happy to hear multiple admissions that a great deal of bad work is being done in the political risk sector, with clients having no way to truly judge the quality of work since it often goes only to a single client, and is never judged in public. The emphasis on risk, without equal emphasis on opportunity, was also criticized, as was the fact that most clients who pay for political risk analysis are not educated enough or capable of acting on the information they receive, and there hasn’t been much effort expended on correcting this.

Generally, the panels were optimistic about the field, and the opportunities and challenges available to those who choose to enter it. But in private conversations, many lamented the fact that though the field has done a good job of identifying the issues that need to be fixed, there are few ideas to be found for how to fix them. My biggest issue with the conference was that it was the equivalent of preaching to the choir- panels where the panelists told the attendees things we already knew. As I told a couple of the organizers, an idea for next year would be to have an interactive workshop with some consumers of political risk analysis, to get a better idea of how they view the field, what problems they see and how we could do a better job, as an industry, to address their needs.

Here’s the thing we all need to understand- the number of political risk firms really exploded in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Before the crisis, when money was plentiful and cheap, businesses could gamble on risky bets and write off losses without a problem. But after the crisis, when money was suddenly scarce, businesses became much more risk averse, and unwilling to take big gambles. They turned to a multitude of political risk firms for help in deciding which gambles weren’t too risky to pursue. Back then, it was easier to say “don’t go there” and be taken at one’s word, and make a good deal of money without trying too hard. But now, as money is becoming plentiful and cheap once again, the appetite for risk increasing, and the most attractive investments are in dangerous places- avoiding them isn’t an option. Yet political risk firms haven’t used their profits to invest in more advanced capabilities, and they can’t do much to meet the more complex current needs of many clients. That’s why so many political risk firms are now jumping on the big data bandwagon- it’s easier to write code to analyze “data” than build extensive local networks of contacts or open a host of global offices. Which is why, after a couple of sessions on the need to add methodological rigor, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques, the mood of the conference suddenly changed during the keynote.

The keynote address featured Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the INCERTO masterwork, which includes The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile. Mr. Taleb’s lecture was without a doubt the liveliest of all, which should not surprise anyone who has ever heard him speak.  Mr. Taleb is well known for his skepticism regarding the very idea that risk, and specifically black swan events, can be predicted, and he was dismissive of the idea that big data analytics could predict much of anything. After all, he argued, there were trillions of data points available before the global financial crisis, but no one was able to predict that. His dismissal of statistical analysis was not shared by some in the audience, who were eager to extol the merits of the work being done with data, but Mr. Taleb effectively ended that discussion with his explanation of the turkey problem. Relying on past data is similar to having a turkey, fed for 1,000 days straight, with each day confirming to the turkey that it is well-loved by its owner. That is, of course, until a few days before Thanksgiving, when the turkey’s life suddenly ends. All the past data could have never predicted that final day for the turkey. Could the turkey come back to life, he'd wonder how he'd missed it, but of course, he's dead, and no amount of better monitoring or forecasting would have done him any good. It's natural, when something goes wrong, to wonder if we didn't do enough of something, but what we should really wonder is if we were doing the right thing to begin with. Mr. Taleb was similarly dismissive of using models for forecasting. As he said, when we have a model, we look only for the data that the model requires to work, and don’t really look closely at a situation, often missing important clues. If you’re lost in a city, he said, an economist you encounter along your wanderings will say, I don’t have a map for this city, but I have one for another (similar to applying a model for one type of situation to another, which may not have the same characteristics). You’re better off having no map, and looking around for clues to help you find your way, than having a useless map. The keynote ended to thunderous applause by the younger attendees, and pursed lips among those practitioners of political risk who strongly disagreed with Mr. Taleb’s assertions.

After the keynote, I spoke to several attendees from a variety of fields. Many of them were obviously unhappy with the points Mr. Taleb made, accusing him of being an entertainer, whose ideas barely hold up upon close review. The problem is, of course, that many current methodologies in political risk similarly don’t hold up under close examination, and by dismissing Mr. Taleb’s arguments, we’re not doing the field of political risk any favors.

This is, of course, why I’m not at all interested in predicting the future- check back next week for my take on where political risk can go from here, if we’re brave enough to try something different.  

Myths vs. Realities: How I "Do Risk"

I often hear from students and young professionals that their career goal is to "do risk." Some of you may laugh, while others may lament that it's similar to those who want to "make policy." They sort of know what it means, but they couldn't tell you about a day in the life of someone who "makes policy." Many students and emerging professionals are starting to learn about the field of risk consulting and are unsurprisingly drawn to the excitement of a field where one is never bored, and where one's skills, languages abilities, and insights are applied to interesting problems that sometimes require travel to exotic locales. To some extent, it's true- no two of my days are ever the same, and I'm constantly learning new things and solving complex challenges. But what does it mean to "do risk?" Until you've spent a day in the field, and I do mean the field, and not just in an office, it's hard to imagine a day in the life of a geopolitical risk consultant. Here's how I "do risk," and I don't claim it's representative of a typical career in risk consulting, but I do hope it provides some insights to those who are considering a career in the field. For those who are consumers of political risk, the lesson is- never trust a political risk consultant who just stays in their office all day long. 

Morning: A typical day starts with catching up on news from Asia and Europe over a cup of strong coffee. I read as much as possible, in all the languages I speak, to get as broad a picture of overnight developments as possible. I try to identify potential flash points: where there might be a major holiday that's likely to spark protests or business disruptions, which government is likely to announce a big policy initiative or what industry might be facing a big challenge due to logistical issues in a shipping hub. For this, I use a multitude of news apps (my favorite being Circa), as well as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook news feeds. I've tried the aggregator news apps, but I find they either overload you with info, or miss important things. I try to read government statements too. Even though I might know they're essentially meaningless or that you have to read between the lines to understand the true meaning, those who come to me with questions might be intrigued by such proclamations and lack the expertise to interpret them. 

Next comes a review of email. I know it's a little obsessive, but I read every single email and promptly delete anything irrelevant. I don't know how or why people can be fine with having thousands of unread messages in their inbox. I respond to anything that requires a response, and then move on to my projects for the day. 

Usually, the project I'm working on requires me to speak with a couple of subject matter experts or local contacts. I prefer to meet with people in person, since it helps build rapport, but given vast distances, I'm usually limited to Skype and phone calls. I always have a list of questions prepared to help guide the conversation and make sure I acquire all the information I need. When a student calls me to chat about the field, I can always tell when they haven't prepared any questions, and I wonder if they hang up and realize they've neglected to ask something important. 

Every hour, I check in with Twitter and the news apps so see what's changing and any new stories that may spark questions. Is the situation in Yemen really evolving or is this newest attack more of the same? Are protests in Brazils likely to die down or will they keep growing and affect ports or industrial hubs? Is an upcoming election in Nigeria likely to be delayed again due to the fight against Boko Haram? I look at the news through the eyes of a CEO, forced to make decisions about expanding operations, evacuating employees or delaying a major investment based on something that may be a flash in the pan, but also could be a sign of a quickly deteriorating security situation. Many of these questions need to be answered quickly, so keeping an eyes on the major stories allows me to analyze developments in real time, instead of having to catch up under a tight deadline. It takes some time to learn how to decide what's important, but once you've answered a couple hundred questions, you start to see that themes emerging- what businesses consider political risks and what's just noise. 

Lunch: Over lunch, I may have a meeting with someone I've met at a networking event. I'm always eager to learn about people's experiences, so I'll have lunch with someone who's just returned from abroad and can offer some local insights into developments that just can't be absorbed via other means, or I'll speak to someone in a field that could benefit from political risk analysis to explain why they might want to consider incorporating it into their decision-making process. Often I learn something new about how someone outside the political risk field views what I do, which leads me to believe the field is failing miserably at managing its own public relations image, but that's a topic for another post. 

Afternoon: After lunch, I tend to focus on research and writing. A motivational playlist is an absolute requirement for this, as is muting my phone's notifications settings. I'll have a screen with news on mute in the background, just in case something significant happens, but otherwise, I try to concentrate on doing my research and drafting good analyses. This often requires some good detective skills. My research might be about something very specific, or very general. For example, if I need to forecast whether a country is likely to buy a certain weapons system or institute a new far-reaching law, I work backwards, researching the circumstances of the last few major sales or announcements of new laws to see if I can identify any clues that I can then look for in the current situation. 

Sometimes word comes in that there's a new focus for a project, or an added element, or a last minute request. It requires flexibility to shift focus and adapt to changes in projects, but it's the nature of the industry that decisions suddenly have to be made or projects are abandoned or modified as the market shifts. This is frustrating for many new entrants to the field, who like to take some time to really dig into a project, only to find it cancelled after a great deal of work has been done. There are good ways to minimize the chances of this if you have sound protocols for determining whether a project is worthwhile from the start, but generally, it's important to learn to go with the flow. 

Evening: In the evenings, there's usually a networking event, a lecture, or a cultural event. There's always something going on in DC, but it takes some trial and error to learn which events are worth attending. Cultural events tend to draw people with great stories, while lectures draw lots of fanboys and fangirls eager to hear an impressive personality rehash the argument from their latest book.  Lately, my favorite ones are the events hosted by The Project for the Study of the 21st Century, where, full disclosure, I'm also a Global Fellow. The Project's goal is to spark interesting conversations, and that's certainly happening. I usually go out for drinks with a group of attendees after these events to discuss what we've learned, what we agree or disagree with and how it translates to our work, whether in the private sector, in government, or at non-profits. These conversations are always thought-provoking, as long as it's with a diverse group. We almost never agree on a single interpretation, but we have fun trying to persuade one another, and it's always useful to see the world through the eyes of people in different fields. A good geopolitical risk consultant needs to be articulate and know when to talk, but it's equally important to know how to listen and observe, since it helps you learn to interpret developments from other viewpoints. 

Some evenings are dedicated to responding to requests from journalists who want my insights on a news story. It's great to see some elements of the media slowly start to appreciate the political risk field and the insights it can contribute to helping people understand the significance of breaking developments. Generally, though, the media isn't very interested in deep analyses, and I sometimes have to make sure my analysis fits in a short quote or sound byte. A general rule to remember is that by the time something is being reported on TV, a good political risk consultant should have already warned a client about the emerging situation and crafted an analysis that will help them take action. Once something is on TV, it's usually too late for a business to take any proactive measures. If a business is hearing about something for the first time on TV, they should probably consider a better political risk firm. Reactive responses are costly- far more costly than the monthly retainer for a political risk firm. Take the recent attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Cruise lines with good political risk firms would have been aware that terrorists are eager to target foreigners in Tunisia, and been in a position to take measures to protect their passengers or avoid certain ports while the threat level was high. 

At the end of the day, I typically make a few notes... names of people to follow up with, what topics came up in conversations, upcoming events that may be of interest. And then I get ready to recharge and tackle the next day's challenges, always in a pair of stilettos.

Questions? Comments? Let me know...  

Myths vs. Realities: Job-hunting in Political Risk

Every month, I get messages from emerging private intelligence and political risk professionals asking for recommendations on the best ways to break into the industry. Each time, I’ve recommended a few of the same basic strategies for landing a job in the field. I’ve decided to combine them into a post on myths vs. realities of job-hunting in this field, which I hope will be helpful to many readers. If you have more specific questions, feel free to send me an email: milenarodban(at)gmail(dot)com or get in touch via Twitter: @MilenaRodban.

-       Myth: All openings in political risk include those words in the title.

Reality:  Jobs in the private intelligence and political risk fields are rarely called what you would expect. Such positions could be referred to as “sovereign risk analyst,” “credit analyst,” “intelligence analyst,” “threat analyst” and “media analyst,” or simply “researcher.” You’ll search in vain for a “political risk analyst” on the company’s website, but if you speak to their “global threat analyst,” you’ll find they’re basically engaged in political risk analysis. The name a company chooses to use can tell you something about how they see the role, and the extent to which they do (or don’t) understand the field, its capabilities and its responsibilities.

-       Myth: Basically, all you need are skills in research, writing and languages.

Reality: The skills necessary for successfully working in the fields of private intelligence and political risk are numerous, and some are easier than others to express on a resume. Having excellent communication skills or language skills is easy to articulate, but what about the other major traits vital to being a good political risk analyst? Good judgment, excellent research skills, a vibrant imagination, initiative, persistence, resilience, flexibility in pivoting between multiple projects, and knowing how to ask the right question. These are harder to express, but that’s why you have to write a cover; it conveys what your resume does not. Cover letters are difficult to write, especially when the interviewer or job poster does not even know what they’re looking for in a successful candidate. But this is where research comes in handy. 

-       Myth: Political risk doesn’t involve math, so you don’t have to worry about understanding quantitative methodologies or statistical analysis.

Reality: Sorry, readers. There is plenty of math involved in the field. From being able to understand statistics and how to compare them- I once had to explain to a colleague why you couldn’t just compare GDP and GDP per capita figures, when the person found GDP per capita for one country and not another- but you also have to comprehend the methodology by which the statistics are calculated. Similarly, the field involves lots of work with risk matrices, charts, graphs, and all manner of calculations. Quantitative methods are increasingly being incorporated into political risk, and it’s important to have those skills going in, since it’s hard to learn the finer points of data analysis on a three-hour deadline. Make sure to highlight your quant skills on your resume! 

-       Myth: You can get all the experience you need by interning at think tanks, private intelligence firms, or political risk firms.

Reality: One of the most common questions I get is how someone can improve their resume. Employers like to see that you’ve made an effort to pursue the knowledge that will help them address client needs. There are a few clearly valuable skills: languages, knowledge of economics/finance, and tech skills (Excel, Adobe Publisher, CMS, web design). Less obvious is the fact that employers want people with broader business expertise. Employers value knowledge of how real-world businesses operate, both where they’re headquartered and abroad. This can only be acquired through diverse work experience, and not just two think tank internships. Pursue travel experiences and gain familiarity with how business is conducted abroad. You can also get it by working at a small business where you do a bit of everything- logistics, billing, sales, etc.

Employers also value candidates with sector expertise. You can only really get that by working in the particular industries which often retain the services of political risk firms, such as oil & gas, manufacturing, shipping, banking, etc. If you’re not sure about which sector you want to choose or don’t have a particular preference, research what sort of clients your dream firms have, and accumulate expertise in those sectors where they have the most clients. Don’t focus on a field where they have only one client- if they lose that contract, they may not need that expertise for a while.

-       Myth: When you’re desperate for a job, you can skip the step of researching a firm’s reputation.

Reality: Always do your research about companies to which you’re sending applications. I often get messages asking what I know about a particular firm, but these questions mostly arrive after someone has applied. Do your research before you hit “submit.” Before you write a cover letter, you should carefully research the company/think tank/government office. DC is small, and people generally know and have opinions about each other’s work. Know ahead of time if the place you’re applying to is generally well respected or routinely criticized. Does it take some time and effort? Yes. Will it make your application stronger if you demonstrate you’ve done your research? Definitely. Will it keep you from accepting a position that could affect the rest of your career? Quite possibly. 

-       Myth: Most people land jobs by sending in online applications.

Reality: Most people find job in political risk by becoming very good at networking. Many people don’t make effective use of their personal and professional networks. When a job opens, existing employees know about it first. They know what skills are necessary for succeeding in the newly available position, and when they think of whom to recommend, make sure it’s you. Don’t do this by pestering your connections. You want to show, not tell. Engage in productive debates, share interesting articles, express your analytical viewpoint on certain developments. Get them to realize you’re smart, talented and insightful. This takes time. It isn’t easy. It requires initiative, imagination, persistence, flexibility and resilience. But those are exactly the skills you need to succeed in this field, so start practicing! 

I hope this is helpful for those of you just starting your career or currently searching for positions in the field. Good luck! 

Myths vs. Realities: How Private Intel Firms Perpetuate Myths

This is the second in a series of posts on myths vs. realities in the world of private intelligence and geopolitical risk. If you're new to the site, you may want to start with the Glossary and the first post in this series, on the Private Intel Cycle (scroll down). 

In the previous post, I discussed some of the many myths regarding private intelligence firms' capabilities. It is my firm belief that many of these myths prevent the industry from being understood by clients, and keep good analysts from getting the resources and skills to do valuable, useful work. To a great extent, these private intel firms actively perpetuate many of these myths, giving prospective clients the impression that they're capable of doing more than they can and are actually doing in the production of the "deliverable” or what’s often just a PDF worth several thousand dollars. Given that many clients understand the intelligence business through the lens of James Bond, 24 and Homeland, they can be easy to persuade and awe with impressive-sounding spy terms. Some of the ways that firms do this is through their structures, branding, and marketing materials. Let’s look at a few examples of ways that firms perpetuate these myths: 

The structures/marketing materials: You've all seen the impressive, low light photos of countless "Operations Centers," with the semi-circular desks positioned under large screens. There are no windows and everyone is pretty pale and serious-looking. Each person has 2-3 screens, and they're clacking away on their keyboards while wearing headsets. Some have remarked that these centers look like NASA mission control, promoting an image of 24’s CTU- secret people planning secret things, in secret lairs.  Sure, that makes it sound and look impressive, but "operations" is a terrible misnomer for the passive monitoring that goes on in these low lit, often windowless bunkers. They're not planning covert actions there; they're checking secret “sources” using “proprietary methodology.” These "sources" aren't collectors in the field, they're just media like Twitter and CNN, requiring none of the tradecraft that the IC uses to develop and run a source network.  A more accurate name for such a place would be "Monitoring Center," but it sure doesn't sound as awesome.    

The branding: The private intelligence industry loves to cloak its work in jargon, much of it borrowed, appropriately or not, from the military and intelligence community. Everyone at a private intel firm is an “intelligence analyst” even though many of them couldn’t tell you the parts of the intelligence cycle. It’s a handy answer for Washington D.C.'s most popular/infamous question - "So, what do you do?" and the interlocutor is nearly always impressed by the response, especially if delivered sotto voce in a dark corner of a bar. One of the most commonly borrowed terms is "sitreps," or situation reports, which tell the what, who, where, how and why of a development. These sitreps are typically nothing more than a basic description resulting from basic Internet research and passive monitoring, and rarely includes analysis of detailed local field reports, as the name implies. Another commonly misused term is "red team” and DC is seemingly full of them. The term originates in adversarial training, intended to describe a unit trained to think from the enemy's perspective and operate using their capabilities. In practice, the term "red team" as used in the private intel industry can apply to just about any basic analytic element, as if saying "hey, what do you think President X was thinking when s/he did this?” counts as analyzing a situation from another perspective. Surprise! It doesn't. Red teaming requires training, not just the ability to pretend you know what your enemy is thinking. What many of these teams do is more akin to writing fan fiction. But of course "red team" sounds more spy-tastic, even if they consistently fail to live up to the name.

Finally, the industry’s original jargon sin is the use of the term "strategy." Everyone is a "strategist," despite routinely betraying the fact that they don't know the difference between tactics and strategy. A bombing is not strategic- a bombing is a tactic used to advance a strategy (inciting terror), which is designed to achieve an objective (undermining the government, etc.). Here’s a tip: If a company doesn't have "strategy" or "strategic" in the name, it likely does better strategic consulting than those who do. It's like the Democratic People's Republic- neither democratic, nor a republic. 

The point I’m trying to make here is that private intel firms are doing a disservice to themselves and their clients by perpetuating myths which skew the work they do. They keep clients from better understanding the value private intelligence analysts could provide, if given the adequate training, skills and resources necessary for meeting client needs. The private intelligence industry fills an important and unique need for clients, which deserves to be recognized and understood. Its value it not in being watered-down and only just IC-esque, with borrowed marketing, branding and jargon. Ultimately, private intel firms succeed by understanding client needs and filling them, not by masquerading as private spy firms, then being upset that clients don't understand or value their work. I'll share some of my ideas on how to accomplish this in a future post. 

Check back next Tuesday for a post on bias and groupthink in the private intelligence industry.