Recruiting people of varying backgrounds into private sector intelligence is just as important as in the rest of the security industry. Whether tasked with assessing travel security or workplace violence, analysts that bring a diversity of past experiences and views can play a significant role in enriching analysis of risk to the benefit of intelligence consumers. The issue of diversity in the space has many facets, but insofar as hiring is an entry point into the field, it is among the most important. In a previous column, I noted that a bias in favor of intelligence analysts with similar backgrounds to their security leaders can be a source of potential missteps while setting up and maximizing the efficacy/value of an intelligence program. In this column, I’d like to make a broader, perhaps counterintuitive, point – a person of any background can be an intelligence analyst, provided they have certain innate traits and are given proper training.
When I say anyone, I mean people so far outside the typical security or intelligence resume that they would often be overlooked. Just how unconventional can their backgrounds be? In the case of AT-RISK International, in addition to personnel hailing from the three-letter agencies and a cohort of foreign affairs graduates (the “usual fare”), we have successfully employed journalists, screenwriters, humanities PhDs and scientists, among others. These individuals have at times been especially capable in telling a story, weaving together the big picture with the details, or just digging for obscure information. As anyone who has been in the field of private sector intelligence or investigations knows, having existing subject matter expertise is only one relatively small factor behind professional success in the intelligence arena.
The art of intelligence has more to do with mindsets and methodologies than specific background or knowledge, and our company’s experience is supported by additional data points. Many in the intelligence and risk forecasting communities have heard of the so-called “Good Judgement Project,” an experiment that initially pitted individuals with zero background in international relations against government analysts with access to classified information. The top participants in the former group—who were mostly taught mindsets and techniques rather than any particular content—were reportedly 30% better at prediction than the government analysts. Systematic approaches are also critical in investigation-oriented intelligence, as highlighted by the fact that some of the leaders in the industry—for instance, Cynthia Hetherington and Marcy Phelps—have backgrounds in library science.
Analysts do need to have certain characteristics that employers can watch for, particularly at the interview stage. As a start, they need to be endlessly inquisitive – and not just about global security. An analyst may find themselves trying to understand the workings of obscure foreign government agencies or the family dynamics of a person of interest, so an inherent curiosity is a must (patience and perseverance too). Although intelligence writing is a skill that can be developed, enjoyment of writing is critical; for better or worse, most analytical products are still written reports. Adaptability in the face of uncertainty is important because the world of information can be like swiss cheese or a haystack with a few needles, depending on your preferred metaphor. Willingness to be flexible to organizational changes and requirements is also crucial. There is little in private sector intelligence that is as stable as in the public sector counterpart.
That gets me to the last essential trait—analysts must have people skills to brief leaders, to provide internal or external customer assistance, and to work effectively with their teams. I will never forget the applicant who came in and told me that he wanted to be an analyst because it is “more behind a computer, and less people-oriented.” Red flag.
Recently hired analysts also need training to flourish. These days, there are several necessary standardized elements to such training, including, for example: intelligence writing for the private sector; quantitative data analysis and visualization; conducting open-source investigations; utilizing intelligence-monitoring platforms; and connecting intelligence to organizational or business goals. When it comes to these and other key modules, individuals with conventional backgrounds in intelligence, law enforcement, military, or international relations may have a slight edge, but a good training program will compensate for any individual areas of weakness. Training for an analyst coming from the government will have to capture the very different scope of the work as well as stress the need for a business-oriented outlook. An academic, meanwhile, may need coaching on pace, succinct writing, and the respectful but sometimes less formal nature of the security industry.
The benefits of having an intelligence team of diverse professional backgrounds are many, while the cost is low and mostly tied to designing or procuring the right type of training. Next time you’re hiring for an intelligence position, don’t overlook accomplished professionals of all stripes. Your intelligence function will be better for it.