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What the intelligence community and the IMF can learn from Ricky Ponting

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COMMENTS

16 February 2011 15:17

Last week Mark Thirlwell highlighted the results of an internal review into the IMF's performance in the run-up to the global financial crisis. What struck me about the passage Mark quoted from the report is how similar the criticism sounded to critiques made of Western intelligence agencies about their performance on the Iraq WMD issue. Here's the quote Mark used:

The IMF's ability to detect important vulnerabilities and risks and alert the membership was undermined by a complex interaction of factors, many of which had been flagged before but had not been fully addressed. The IMF's ability to correctly identify the mounting risks was hindered by a high degree of groupthink, intellectual capture, a general mindset that a major financial crisis in large advanced economies was unlikely, and inadequate analytical approaches. Weak internal governance, lack of incentives to work across units and raise contrarian views, and a review process that did not “connect the dots” or ensure follow-up also played an important role, while political constraints may have also had some impact.

Now here are some extracts from the UK Butler Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction:

...the more alien the target, the more important is the ability of intelligence analysts to appreciate that their own assumptions do not necessarily apply everywhere.

There is also the risk of ‘group think’ – the development of a ‘prevailing wisdom’. Well developed imagination at all stages of the intelligence process is required to overcome preconceptions.

The assessment process must be informed by an understanding of policy-makers’ requirements for information, but must avoid being so captured by policy objectives that it reports the world as policy-makers would wish it to be rather than as it is.

We recommend consideration of the provision of proper channels for the expression of dissent within the Defence Inteligence Staff through the extension of the remit of the Staff Counsellor...

A few precise matches, and enough overlap to suggest that similar mistakes were made in both cases. So how does Ricky Ponting fit into all this'

The Australian test cricket captain was quoted recently about his return to the team after recovering from a finger injury. He said that, although his finger had recovered, he would sit out of a few more matches: 'I don't think Don Bradman could go into a game having a month off and only one or two training sessions under his belt so I'll just keep progressing slowly'.

Coming from a professional athlete, such a statement is so trite ('practice makes perfect') that it barely occurs to us think about how unusual it would be to express it in another context. But political analysts, for instance (and I count myself among them), spend very little time practicing their craft and honing their technique. They simply read, write, talk and think as if you just pick up these things as you go along, and as if there are no good and bad ways of doing them.

We would be astounded if Ricky Ponting told the world he doesn't spend hours in the nets working on his cover drive, or if Lionel Messi announced that he never works on his passing technique. Or if we discovered neither had ever been formally coached.

So when it comes to jobs in which war, peace and economic ruin are potentially at stake — such as at the IMF and in intelligence agencies — why are we so casual about the teaching of analytic technique' And what makes us think that we can inculcate good technique just by 'picking it up as you go along''

Photo by Flickr user Michael Sheil.

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