CI colleague and friend Eric Garland wrote a very provocative editorial in the April 2012 edition of The Atlantic entitled “Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber.” This is effectively Eric’s resignation from the field of intelligence along with some very important questions about the value of the intelligence practice in business today. The article is worth a read, and I definitely felt it was worth some commentary. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s worth considering the value competitive and strategic intelligence are delivering in our current environment.
Eric begins his article by telling us that he has observed an “endemic corruption of how decisions are made in our most critical institutions.” He goes on to describe how business decision-makers have become focused on feel-good information that doesn’t challenge their underlying assumptions. Eric says that this preference– nay insistence– on feel-good news has increased since the financial crisis of 2008. An industry has sprung up that feeds in to the executive desire to feel good about the future, executive mastery of their industry and general CYA. These charlatans actually making it harder for those of us who are trying to deliver the real, often uncomfortable intelligence. “Strategic intelligence” firms and many consultancies have become the enablers of senior executives’ addiction to graphs that always move up and to the right.
A tripartite cause for the war on strategic intelligence and emperical insight come in for criticism:
- Industry consolidation enabled by cheap capital. It’s intuitive that most mature industries are more concentrated today than they have been in the past. I argue that most industries have a diverse second and third-tier of competitors, there is a tendency towards “too big to fail” market leaders that are given special treatment by central banks, regulators and politicians to maintain their incumbency against market dynamics, disruptive innovation and poor management.
- Consolidation has created huge bureaucracies out of once-thriving businesses. The problems of agency in business are well-known, where managers’ and owners’ interests diverge. Firms that have reached this stage do things very differently from smaller, entrepreneurial firms. In these institutions it is better to fail conventionally than to innovate and face risk. Internal politics become the criteria for how decisions are made.
- Today’s global economy is driven by policy decision-makers and not by competitive markets. In the wake of 2008 the nation-state has its hands in the economy more than at any time since World War II. I attended a recent session of senior competitive intelligence and strategy executives from diverse industries, and the unanimous top priority for all of the firms represented in that room was regulation. Literally every industry has a set of regulatory and policy priorities that will almost by themselves determine success or failure, or at the very least define the shape of success or failure. The state of our economy is being decided in Washington, Brussels and Beijing rather than in a competitive market.
Eric finished the editorial with several examples of former clients became frustrated or even enraged when presented with the most basic strategic facts, such as the aging global population or how long it could take for housing prices to regain 2007 levels (if ever). I’ve been here as well, tasked with defending the blatantly obvious against a corporate orthodoxy, only to have decisions put off because “the verdict isn’t in yet” on clearly settled matters of technological disruption or demographic shift.
While I agree with almost everything Eric has to say in his article, he and I diverge on our personal conclusions about what to do about it:
- In the last year I’ve moved to a firm where strategic realities are given their day in court. Not all big firms are closed to the value or import of good strategic intelligence. Sometimes you do need to pick your battles.
- There are smaller firms competing in truly dynamic markets that demand real insight instead of CYA feints at strategic analysis. I’m always happy when I see smaller firms advertising to fill CI positions.
- Eventually we will see a dramatic scaling back of state intervention into the economy, either at the bond auction or the ballot box. This changeover won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and the transition will be extremely painful to the leading firms in industries that have come to depend on central bank largesse and government intervention, but it will open up a world of opportunity for those small and medium firms to make their marks on their respective industries.
So, what’s your take on “Peak Intelligence?” Do you disagree with the concept entirely? If you agree, where in your career do you see the bright spots? What companies or firms are doing strategic insight the right way to support quality decision making?
As a fun addendum, here is Eric being interviewed about his article on Russia Today. Stick around for the last few seconds because the look on Eric’s face when the anchor has clearly missed the premise of what Eric is trying to convey is really priceless.