Mastering Information Fusion: Learning From Spies

Learning From Spies

We have seen the future of insights. It is information source agnostic and it seamlessly weaves together disparate data into a story that answers two key questions: So what? What’s next?

Insights professionals of the future will be information omnivores. But it will be the quality of analysis —not the quantity of data — that will make the difference.

How do we know that? We need only look to the example of the intelligence community. Their analysts are continuously engaged in rapid, high stakes analysis and reporting. They have been incorporating behavioural economic techniques in their analysis for the past 50 years. And they have long been dealing with multiple data sources and rapid technological change. Their today is our future.

“In the beginning we had almost a monopoly on insights,” Antony R. Barton, Director of Product Innovation and Marketing Insights at Intel told me in an interview for my book The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything, “and that put us in a very special position, because nobody else had access to data. We had to do this survey, or we had to do this discrete choice, or this set of focus groups, because nobody else could get the data. And then, all of a sudden, there is this explosion of data. There are lots of ways to get at insights. I think the industry has struggled with that.” This change is happening to insights now, but in the world of intelligence, it happened many years ago.

Dealing with diverse sources

A former CIA-analyst and current professor of intelligence analysis (who must remain anonymous) I recently interviewed for my new book, explained: “In the early 1980s, the job of a US government intelligence analyst was to deal with the secret stuff: the satellite imagery; the intercepted telephone conversations; reports from the spies and all that kind of stuff.”

“In the 20-some years that I was in the business,” he continued, “it was very much transformed by how much really good material is out there now, unclassified and open world. And Google Earth is just one example of this. So, the intelligence analyst…their job has really changed. They have to be aware of all that stuff that’s out there in the outside world. They can’t come to the table with just the secret stuff, because there is so much valuable information out there.”

Intelligence analysts deal with an astonishingly diverse array of information sources and distil them down into insights to guide decision-makers. They include what the intelligence community call SIGINT—which is primarily signal interception, IMINT—image intelligence, which includes photos, radar sensors and electo-optics, MASINT—other signal sources that can be used to track targets, and GEOINT—which is the analysis and visual representation of security-related activities on the earth. They also use other sources that are more familiar: OSINT—open-source information that is publicly available, and HUMINT—human intelligence and espionage.

Each of these areas has people with specialised technical skills. But the bulk of the insights are generated by “all-source analysts” who must synthesise all these streams of data quickly and accurately, as mistakes are deadly. What kind of people are these?

The CIA analyst job description sums it up nicely: “Collaborative. Problem-solvers. Critical thinkers. These are the qualities needed for CIA analytic positions. The ability to study and evaluate sometimes inconsistent and incomplete information and provide unique insights that help inform decisions is a key aspect of these positions.”

Note the focus on collaboration and critical thinking. Those are two things we could use more of in the world of insights. Too often, we work without much cross-team discussion of implications, and we regularly run with the first interpretation that comes to mind.

Thinking about thinking

The professor of intelligence analysis I spoke to focuses on teaching how to think about analysis, more than how to wrangle specific pieces of information. He does this because he knows the types of information available will continue to change and evolve, but the task of analysis will not.

The intelligence community has developed numerous approaches to analysis they call ‘structured analytic techniques’ (SAT), which they use to help guide their thinking as they assess the evidence. While each SAT is slightly different, common themes are generating and testing multiple hypotheses, encouraging collaboration when generating hypotheses, critical thinking and being aware of the effect of cognitive biases.

This consciousness of cognitive bias is long-standing. “Intelligence analysts must understand themselves before they can understand others,” wrote former CIA analyst Richards Heuer in the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. Indeed, the intelligence community started structuring their analytic techniques around behavioural economics in the late 1970s, as Kahneman and Tversky were just unveiling their work on heuristics and biases.

Heuer believed, “Intelligence analysts should be self-conscious about their reasoning process. They should think about how they make judgments and reach conclusions, not just about the judgements and conclusions themselves.” That’s a rigor the insights industry can learn from.

A singular focus

So, while intelligence analysts have been dealing with intense data fusion for a long time, we in the insights community should note this emphasis on “thinking about thinking” and considering how to do better analysis. The intelligence community have gotten past being seduced by technology or overwhelmed by the volume of information. The focus is on how to do thoughtful and accurate analysis.

As Sherman Kent, a Yale historian who founded the analysis branch at the CIA, wrote prophetically in 1947 “Whatever the complexities of the puzzles we strive to solve and whatever the sophisticated techniques we may use to collect the pieces and store them, there can never be a time when the thoughtful [wo]man can be supplanted as the intelligence device supreme.”

As our industry is transformed by the opportunities afforded by new data sources, let’s learn from the intelligence community. Our focus should be on one unchanging thing: excellence in analysis.

This article was originally published on ESOMAR’s Research World

Coming Soon

On a related exciting note, I’m working on a follow-up to The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything. The new book revolves around learnings from other professionals who also develop insights. The book will include interviews with detectives, spies, doctors, prosecutors, archeologists, and historians about how they develop and communicate their insights.

Want to be the first to get a copy? Sign up and we will email more details when the book is out in early 2020.



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