Report urges intelligence community to use more science in recruitment of analysts

To attract the best analysts, the intelligence community must shift from an emphasis on traditional qualifications, such as formal education, and focus more on an individual's raw cognitive ability, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

Knowledge of a specific political area in the world and technical expertise are important traits in an intelligence analyst, but they essentially can be taught, the report argued. But the way a person thinks -- how she gathers information, analyzes it and sees patterns in data -- coupled with the ability to collaborate with a range of people are better indicators of success in the intelligence field, the study said.

"Clearly the IC [intelligence community] needs analysts with deep substantive knowledge of countries, cultures, transnational relations and myriad other issues. However, it also needs analysts capable of integrating knowledge across domains, working with experts in other fields, and coping with shifting assignments," the report said. The National Research Council is part of The National Academies.

The study encouraged the intelligence community to rely more on behavioral and social sciences, rather than on applicants' substantive expertise, to suss out the best candidates for intelligence work. "Every analyst should have a basic understanding of the fundamental ways of thinking captured by probability theory, game theory, operations research, qualitative analysis and other analytic methods. Each method provides a different way to look at the world and organize data," the report said.

Sixteen federal agencies and offices comprise the intelligence community, employing about 100,000 workers -- 20,000 of whom are analysts. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees the patchwork of players. As the report pointed out, the intelligence community still is adjusting to the post-Cold War era where threats to national security range from existential to specific, and where enemies and targets are quite literally all over the map.

Retaining a highly skilled workforce is as important as recruiting capable analysts, the study said, emphasizing the role that training plays over the course of an employee's career. "Training should not be viewed as an impediment to 'getting work done,' nor should it be provided only to entry-level personnel," the report said. "Instead it must be seen as a career-long commitment, as much a part of the job as preparing analyses or providing guidance to intelligence collectors."

The report targeted three key elements in workforce development: continuous learning, motivation and performance assessment, and collaboration among colleagues. Teamwork is particularly critical, as it ensures vital information is disseminated among those protecting national security, and collaboration promotes more innovation and exploration, the study noted.

To motivate employees, managers must recognize that different workers respond to different incentives. For those most affected by external factors such as pay and promotion, "it is important to link compensation to desired performance," the report said. For analysts who are motivated more by internal satisfaction with their jobs, signs of the inherent value of their work produces results, including allowing them to use and expand their skills with as few roadblocks as possible.

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