Corporate Intelligence Playbook: Part 2

FEATURE — Occasionally, we ask Cipher Brief Experts with experience in both the public and private sectors to share their thoughts on security-related issues. You can read Part 1 of Corporate Intelligence in The Cipher Brief.

The Business Imperative

Intelligence is a discipline, but business is the imperative.  So, we have to act like it.

Building a thriving indigenous corporate intelligence program depends on the foresight (or at the very least, the indulgence) of a corporate executive.  They have to see value in intelligence.  In order to see value, that intelligence must be relevant, insightful and actionable – meaning, you’re giving them something (or the promise of something) that will significantly move the financial or reputational needle for the company. 

But in order to be those three things, you must recognize your company’s reason for being and how that translates into the needs and motivations of your internal customers, and restlessly chase the things that feed those needs and motivations. 

  • Companies often have secondary motivations for their business.  Altruism, innovation, global citizenship.  But it’s first commitment is always to its shareholders.  At the core of every decision, every initiative, is the business imperative.  Deals have to get done.  Strategy has to be advanced.  The intelligence you produce, the advice you give, and the activities you conduct on behalf of your leaders MUST consider and reflect that core, underlying motivation from your customer.  Your job is to use intelligence to build the roadmap, not just find the road-blocks, to a positive commercial outcome. 
  • My mentor, (Cipher Brief Expert Paul Kolbe) always says: “The best intel goes to the best customers.”  That obviously doesn’t mean we hold the good stuff for the customers we like the best.  It means that no matter how relevant, insightful and actionable your intelligence is, it is meaningless to a customer who doesn’t know what to ask for or how to use it when they have it.  A ‘good customer’ understands the intelligence cycle sufficient to work with you to develop meaningful intelligence requirements that result in an intelligence product they can use to make tough decisions.  A ‘good customer’ knows how to action your intelligence and how to bridge your dissemination to feedback and new requirements.  So how do we get good customers? 
  • It’s your job to make good customers.  Our world is intuitive to us, but it’s not intuitive to everyone. We have to employ empathy for our customers, teach them what intelligence is and what it isn’t, and show them how to play ball.  This is a journey for which maturity often takes time, cultivation of a positive working relationship, guidance through the cycle, and demonstration of value.  At the same time, it’s also your job to make yourself a good business-person. Listen to your customer.  Understand how they assess risk and opportunity.  Learn the company’s domestic politics.  Speak their language rather than making them learn yours.  Most of all, help them see you as a sympathetic ear and a potentially unique answer to some of their problems.  And remember the business imperative.
  • ‘Good customers’ will grow past “can I/can’t I?” intelligence questions, and into “should I/shouldn’t I” and “how do I” intelligence questions.  It’s a transformative point for your program:  you’ve moved beyond the tactical and into the strategic. You’re no longer a tic-box, you’re an advisor.  Your discipline demands that your relationship with your customer exists through the life-cycle of a deal and into the operating life of an investment.  It’s the very point of the intelligence cycle, and it naturally creates more complex requirements with higher-stakes results.  But even mature intelligence programs find themselves brought into deals at the last minute for a ‘final check.’ Intelligence is not a checkpoint exercise.  Hear that as an alarm bell and an opportunity to grow. 
  • Prioritize your efforts on the initiatives and customers that present the greatest value or risk to the company.  The intelligence resource is limited, expensive, and sensitive.  It has to be used where it’ll provide the greatest bang for the buck.
  • Dedicate yourself to what I call “internal business development.”  That means constantly chasing pockets of latent demand within the company. Brand yourself. Advertise yourself. Get your pitch right, try it out a few times, and then get it more right. You’re on a journey just as much as your burgeoning ‘good customers.’
  • At the same time, your value is only as good as your external network.  You must have a Case Officer’s mentality.  Constantly chasing new sources, new providers, new technical tools, new relationships.  Turning over ones that have become stale or no longer fit for purpose.  And you have to make those relationships meaningful – trust builds transparency which reduces operational or ethical risk and gives you greater fidelity on raw intelligence and greater control over how it’s acquired.  
  • It’s easy, and lazy, to look at intel teams simply as ‘subject matter experts.’  Its true: intel professionals tend to be SME’s on an issue or geography.  But then how do executives distinguish your value proposition from all the other substantively smart ‘experts?’  Real differentiating value comes when you’re able to promote your team also as ‘deep technical experts.’  That’s to say, it’s not enough to just know stuff.  It’s the rigor and discipline involved in how you came to know that ‘stuff’ and the same discipline behind what you do with that ‘stuff.’  Your team have learned, practiced and perfected their tradecraft to ensure not only that your raw intel was professionally and authoritatively acquired, but that it was also dispassionately and technically assessed.  Own and promote your craft.
  • Corporate leaders want people who can think, but also people who can do.  A program can’t focus exclusively on interpreting and contextualizing the company’s external environment.  It needs to also help find creative solutions and help execute them.  Intelligence professionals are uniquely suited for that, and where appropriate, we should show leadership in this space.  We see the world in a different way, and the perspectives we take for granted are not always obvious to others.  Appreciate your uniqueness.  It’s your biggest value-add.  But…..
  • Leave your old badge at the old door.  Your background at (pick a 3-letter agency) is cool, but it can be as much “crutch” as “credential.”  Outside of the pub, corporate leaders are not interested in ‘how we used to do things.’  You don’t work there anymore.  You work here.  They only care about how you’re going to do things, and how that’s going to create opportunity or help the company manage risk.  Inability to separate how we operate (with technical discipline, which remains a constant) from why we operate (a variable that pivots from the national security imperative to the business imperative) can impact your perspective on risk and opportunity and diminish the value you bring to the table.
  • You’re not the expert at most things, and very few corporate challenges are limited to the scope of your own expertise.  Build and leverage relationships inside the company.  Economic experts, digital security professionals, political risk colleagues, lawyers, and business developers all afford unique perspective and offer significant force-multiplication value to your deliverable.    You’re likely to have greater impact with a dynamic message.
  • But hold sacred your duty to provide an independent view of opportunity and risk to company leadership when necessary.  Corporate collaboration is not in conflict with your professional ability to take a position and convey that position respectfully but directly to the decision-makers that need to hear it.  It’s your profession, and it’s what you’re paid to do.

Read Part 1 of Corporate Intelligence in The Cipher Brief

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