Strategic Analysis? – Is there such a thing?

December 2, 2014

I recently finished reading an interesting book, Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond[1]. In that book, the author, Professor Dahl, to my mind is obliquely questioning the value so-called strategic intelligence/early warning (hereinafter strategic intelligence) on the basis that strategic intelligence is by almost definition not actionable and therefore, while viewed as important, is, in practice, little used by decision-makers. That is a startling conclusion or finding, depending on your point of view, for those of us in competitive intelligence, coming from the world of military and political intelligence.

But this finding may provide us with a potential answer the puzzling problem of why so much is written about strategic intelligence, but so few companies actually appear to practice its successfully for any sustained period of time.

If Prof. Dahl is correct, then, in competitive intelligence, strategic intelligence has two real problems:

  1. It is almost by definition not actionable: it necessarily lacks the “who, what, where, why, how, and when” (or at least most of them) necessary to meet the needs of management for being actionable.
  2. Prof. Dahl also finds that the reason end-users do not act on strategic intelligence is that it lacks a critical element: “the collection of very precise intelligence that convinces enables a decision-maker to take the actions needed….”[2] In my words, it is not tactical enough for decision-makers to try to make a decision. Their bad, not the analyst’s.

To put another way, let us say we are dealing not with strategic intelligence, but long-range weather forecasting. Your firm operates a new, large facility in Atlantic City New Jersey. The National Weather Service has predicted that the next season will be an extremely active and dangerous hurricane season with, say, six hurricanes making landfall in the United States. There is your strategic intelligence. What does your management do about this? Probably little other than looking around to see that they are prepared for a hurricane – that is, they are taking precautions based on the last one or two that passed by, not on a hit by a future Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina.

Now let us say the same National Weather Service is today tracking a new hurricane moving up from the Gulf of Mexico, and that the cone of probability now indicates that it could well make landfall near or at Atlantic City. There is your tactical intelligence. You know what: a specific hurricane. You know where: Atlantic City. You know when: in two – three days. You know why: hurricane season. You know how (intense): look at the probability cone. Now what does management do about this? It sees it has 1 to 2 days to react, so it executes that pre-existing plan – hoping that it is enough. Does it close down the plant?  Move out employees? Secure (or move) all of the chemicals, products etc. at the plant? What can it do now?

The failure of the strategic intelligence lies not just in its failure to be actionable, that is tactical, but also in the failure of management to buy into it and take at least some new actions, or prepare for new actions.

So, can strategic intelligence ever work in business?

[1] By Erik J. Dahl. Georgetown University press, Washington DC, 2013, 277 pages. I have just reviewed it and will link this blog with the review when it is published.

[2] p. 2.


One Comment on “Strategic Analysis? – Is there such a thing?”


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