Competitiveness and Innovation

Intelligence takes a holiday

30 Jun 2009  

Last week I went on vacation with my “lifemate” Ellen and the rest of my immediate family.  We were on Cape Cod, MA, which is a pretty sophisticated area as far as vacation spots go, so I had assumed that there would be good Internet connections.

Wrong.  No Wi-Fi signals, only one bar (at best) of cell phone, and my cell-powered wireless WAN working only briefly on one very stormy morning.  (Thanks, Verizon!)

I started thinking maybe Ellen planned it this way.  Instead of reading various chat boards, calling people, and posting to my blog, I actually talked to my family and read some of those heavy paper things—oh right, books.

Ellen claims that “vacation” means not only do you vacate your usual PLACE, you also vacate your MIND—and that you can’t do that while constantly being on the phone and the Internet.  So I think she secretly engineered this—to save my sanity.  It’s scary to go “off the grid” for even several hours, let alone several days as I did.  There are stages:  first you panic, then you get angry…but then you start to care less and less, and so on.  Eventually, you settle into a deeper zen-like level based more on the sunsets and the tide patterns than on the latest news morsel.  I wouldn’t want to live there, but it sure is a nice place to visit.

White Swan at Wellfleet

White Swan at Wellfleet

But even if you get away electronically, it’s nearly impossible to totally escape the rush of events.  Especially if you’re a news junkie like me.

On one of the days (June 23, 2009) I was able to find a New York Times at the Brewster General Store in the afternoon.  So I sat down for an uncharacteristically leisurely read of the NYT (which is usually a hurried morning read followed quickly by the Wall Street Journal (for the financial detail) and the Financial Times (for the non-US perspective).

Usually a couple of headlines jump out at me each morning.  That day one did—“U.S. Scrambles for Information on Iran”.  About how, since we don’t have diplomatic relations with Iraq, we don’t have embassies.  No embassies, no embassy cocktail parties—apparently the most effective way we have of finding out what’s really going on.

Excuse me?  The US is said to spend around $60 billion a year on intelligence, and we don’t know in depth what’s going on in Iran?  A country that is in the nuclear “on deck circle”, working hard to be part of the world’s most powerful “club”?  (And which economically viable country isn’t?)  That is constantly threatening the USA’s de facto 51st state, Israel?  That is in extreme political turmoil in a region where turmoil seems the coin of the realm?

How can this happen?  There’s a clue at the end of the article.  A former Middle East CIA analyst describes his duties as “You look at minutiae”.  NEWS FLASH:  If you’re looking at minutiae—small stuff that doesn’t matter—you’re inevitably going to produce intelligence that is small and doesn’t matter. That’s OK as long as you have the big stuff too—but there’s always a resource tradeoff, and too often the day-to-day drowns out the strategic.

It’s not that our public servants are so incompetent.  Businesses have exactly the same problem.  The “I need it yesterday” fire drills often squeeze out the longer-term, in-depth looks at the forces actually driving the business.

Next time, to really safeguard my peace of mind, Ellen obviously needs to find a Cape Cod venue that blocks all electronic communications and newspapers.  Hey, didn’t a Harvard guy named Thoreau try that a century and a half or so ago?

A happy summer to you all!

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