RAND’s New Analysis of Strategic Warning Challenges Facing the Intelligence Community Applies to the Private Sector Too

As our clients know, Britten Coyne Partners’ methodologies draw on a wide variety of sources, including the military and intelligence communities. In this blog post we will summarize important insights from RAND Corporation’s new analysis, “Perspectives and Opportunities in Intelligence for US Leaders.”

Chapter 2 is titled, “
Reconstituting Strategic Warning for the Digital Age.” RAND begins by noting that, “since 2014, events have raised questions about both the Intelligence Community’s (IC’s) strategic warning effectiveness and the policy community’s understanding of warning and its ability to command action in response.”

They then make a point that we have often made ourselves: “The strategic warning mission is bedeviled by two inherent challenges…In slowly developing situations it is often hard to stimulate action. The second challenge is how to alert policymakers to something that has rarely, if ever, been seen before…The inherent challenge in providing insight to policymakers about future developments is in making sure that warning is heeded, but does not cause undue alarm.”

RAND also cites well-known CIA analyst Jack Davis’ famous quote on another aspect of the warning challenge: “Waiting for evidence the enemy is at the gate usually fails the timeliness test; prediction of potential crises without hard evidence can fail the credibility test.”

In sum, “warning is fundamentally a problem of both sensemaking and effectively communicating insights to busy policymakers – an inherently difficult challenge.”

In today’s world, the warning challenge has become exponentially greater because of the speed with which events often develop our complex and densely interconnected world.

As RAND notes, today the IC is “frequently confronting rapidly evolving situations that have never been seen before.” Under these conditions, effective “warning is dependent on much more than simply having experts who know the issues associated with the topic. Experts in a field tend to see trends based on what they have seen before, and they have difficulty imagining discontinuities that surprise…Experts are naturally wedded to their previous assessments” (a point also made by Philip Tetlock in his excellent book on “
Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It?”).

Given this, RAND concludes that, “expertise has to be complemented with a diversity of views", from internal and external sources. To which we can only add, “Amen.”

It is also unlikely that artificial intelligence and other technologies will ever be able to replace the human beings when it comes to sensemaking in highly complex situations, particularly when the challenge is to make accurate estimates of the ways they could evolve in the future. At best, such technologies may increasingly be able to augment human cognition.

In summing up the nature of the strategic warning challenge facing the intelligence community, the Director of National Intelligence’s strategic plan states that, “our anticipated strategic environment models closely on chaos theory: initial conditions are key, trends are non-linear, and challenges emerge suddenly due to unpredictable systems behavior…We believe our customers will seek out inputs on what may surprise them, if we are capable of placing such inputs in a larger context and demonstrating rigor in our analytic approach to complexity.”

RAND concludes that “a new warning tradecraft that combines indicators with techniques to test assumptions, identify event drivers, consider plausible alternative explanations and outcomes, and aggregate expert forecasts provides a good foundation, but it must be applied throughout the IC to achieve fundamental change in the current approach to warning.”

We believe that the points raised by RAND are just as applicable to the strategic risk management, governance, and warning challenges faced today by private sector corporations as they are to those facing the Intelligence Community. At Britten Coyne Partners, our mission is to help organizations successfully meet them.