By Carmen Medina
Former director, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence
A speaker at THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership, in New York City today
As we seek to build a smarter planet, a smarter government, smarter cities, and smarter communities, we need to take advantage of the new ways of sensing and knowing. And we need to develop and deploy the new technologies for sensemaking on their own terms rather than trying to force them to fit with our previous ways of doing things.
This strikes me as the great challenge of this century, particularly since new technologies will keep coming at us at faster and faster rates. The contest is not between competing camps of knowledge workers or between us and the machines that we construct. Instead, the contest is between the reality we have and the future we might attain, and sensemaking will be one of our most important aids in making progress.
So our future depends on the ability of leaders to transform the organizations they lead as quickly and effectively as they absorb powerful new technologies–and in sync with the capabilities of those new tools. I recognize that it will surprise people to hear this, but sensemaking is in fact the primary mission of the Central Intelligence Agency. Before I retired from the agency last year, I had spent almost 32 years in its myth-shrouded corridors trying to make sense of the world. I feel quite blessed for having had that experience. My career spanned the Cold War, South Africa’s apartheid policy, America’s dominance of world affairs, the rise of terrorism and the emergence of a new, more complex age in international relations—the period we are living through today.
And yet despite those momentous transitions and transformations, I think the one that was the most important and arguably will have the greatest impact going forward was the dramatic change I witnessed in knowledge work. What was knowledge work like when I started at the CIA in 1978? Back then, we had no desktop computers. We wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, or pecked away on typewriters.
But within 5 years of my arrival there, the computer revolution had arrived. Of course these weren’t really computers as we know them today; just terminals attached to a mysterious mainframe none of us analysts understood. I was part of a pilot team that was testing strange new machines with Graphical User Interfaces that never quite operated as advertised. But even then I could see the potential in these new devices.
For CIA analysts the most revolutionary consequence of the computer revolution was that we no longer have to fight with each other to see the one physical copy of some important piece of information. We can share.
Before computers we would visit these mysterious rooms in the building where the printouts were stored. If you were an ambitious analyst, you actually wanted to make the mail run because on your way back to the office you could scan the available intelligence and, by virtue of having read the information first, be the analyst who wrote up or briefed the intelligence to policymakers. And that was what knowledge work was like before we had collaboration.
Today knowledge work is so different from when I started that it hardly seems the same discipline. Although knowledge workers still read for understanding, the real advantage no longer goes to the person who reads something first, but rather to who can first detect the salient patterns in huge volumes of information drawn from many sources. And because there is so much information, the concept of the individual knowledge worker slogging her way through a stack of musty papers is not just antiquated, it’s dangerous. Only boundary-less teams of analysts, assisted by the very best smart software and hardware, can hope to make sense of the complex world we now live in.
The last 15 years or so of my career at CIA were devoted to trying to manage and accelerate this transition to what I called digital analysis. This transition was made difficult by the fact that many knowledge workers were attached to ways of doing business that, when they were developed 50 years ago, were often just arbitrary adaptations to the technology available at the time. For example, I would often ask analysts why they thought the production of short papers was the defining output of knowledge workers. For me the answer was simple. The only item you could produce from those old manual typewriters—the cutting edge technology of the 1950s–were sheets of paper. And yet here we were, 50 years later using infinitely more powerful computing machines to produce the very same product.
Today’s tools for deriving meaning from information and experience are sophisticated indeed. Now we need to do a better job of integrating them not only into our organizations but into the way we think about ourselves and our creativity.