Flipping through this past Sunday’s edition of The New York Times
, I spotted a large two-part display ad for the CIA on page 8 of the business section. This not too surprising; I have seen ads from the CIA like this before. Perhaps it was the message that grabbed me.
“You can make a world of difference: National clandestine service careers,” read one of the ads.
“Great places to work,” read the subhead for the second ad.
These declarations made me think and compare the two types of workplaces for intelligence professionals: the government and the corporation. There are no doubt a lot of very smart people working for the CIA, but the real difference between government and corporate settings is the ability to focus.
Think about a corporation. Here you have a well-defined (not always well-managed) entity that has a limited number of products or services it must sell to stay in business. If a company’s management does its job well, it knows its customers and what they want to buy and makes its pitch more alluring and more exciting than that of its rivals. It management is really, really smart, it has the foresight to think some years ahead and plan ways to further strengthen its strategic position. The competitive analysts that work for corporations understand the basic objectives and must monitor this relatively focused market.
Government (any government, not just the U.S.), has far less focus. President Bush declared a “war on terror” some years ago but this is a vaguely worded slogan, not a strategic objective. Where your market is everywhere (practically every country on the planet), it’s hard to know where to focus. To one degree or another, the CIA must spread its field force to cover the streets, alleyways and halls of government in all these locations.
The press feeds on intelligence failures. “When it bleeds, it leads,” goes an old newspaper aphorism. In other words, where you find a problem or a tragedy, you have a headline. The CIA has had its share in recent years. Not a surprise. This is an agency that has at times been set up for failure. A company can target five discrete objectives and drill down. A corporation has a certain finite number of rivals. In contrast, the CIA has scores of objectives, wide ranging geographies, and seemingly endless enemies in this fractured world of terrorists.
I can very much appreciate and believe that the CIA is indeed a wonderful place to work. We need this government organization. Yet, when comparing “intelligence productivity” at the CIA to that of a corporation, I believe maintaining focus may be far more challenging for the intelligence professional than for his corporate counterpart. As one of the sales tag lines in the CIA ad states: “These exciting careers offer fast-paced, high-impact challenges in worldwide intelligence collection efforts on issues of US foreign policy interest and national security concern.” “Worldwide” is a big agenda. Even for very smart people, you need focus.
Is reality stranger than fiction, or do war games presage reality?
Two months ago, March 4, 2008, we ran a public war game among four leading business schools on the newly emerging wireless Internet (We run these war games privately for clients worldwide when they need to make critical decisions and significant investments. The results this game achieved mirror the great success we have had with clients who use such games to learn their best strategic options, as well as anticipate a rival’s moves).
Here is a fictional press announcement at the public event that appeared on the future date of May 6, 2008, announcing a future mega joint venture to roll out a wireless Internet. We dubbed the fictional project, Crystal. Here is a portion of the announcement:
“In a surprising turn of events on the part of major telecommunications and media players, a new deal has emerged that is likely to turn the wireless Internet and the mobile phone business on its head and its called Crystal, the 21st century’s first mega communications deal to form a vertically integrated media company with a totally wireless backbone. Crystal’s new executive board consists of a power lunch A-list: John Malone, media baron and Chairman of Liberty Media, Sprint Nextel’s Xohm (WiMax) division president, Barry West, Craig McCaw, founder of Clearwire, a high-speed wireless Internet provider, and Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer. The venture would be funded by Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, most recently noted for its recent $7.5 billion cash infusion into Citigroup.”
Eerily, today, on May 7, 2008, The New York Times actually announced such a deal. Here is what the article said:
“A who’s who of technology and telecommunications companies plans to announce on Wednesday that intends to build the first of a new generation of nationwide wireless data networks, according to several people briefed on the deal. The consortium includes a disparate group of partners: Sprint Nextel, Google, Intel, Comcast, Time Warner and Clearwire…The partners have put the value of the deal at $12 billion, a figure that includes radio spectrum and equipment provided by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire, and $3.2 billion from he others involved. They expect the network, which will provide the next generation of high-speed Internet access for cellphone users, to be built in as little as two years…”
Did I and my team have a crystal ball to be able to anticipate this announcement so accurately and so clearly over two months ago? No. What we had was a war game that analyzed all the competitive pieces and allowed some very smart business school students imagine where the industry was going to go next, over the coming one to two years.
What are the headlines you have not yet read about? Well, if the games predictions prove similarly accurate, over the next two years, you will see the following headlines (or some that are very similar):
- Intel will likely enter the landscape through the backdoor by helping PC makers get into the handset business.
- Google will do “a little evil” and partner with AT&T (or possibly one of the other one of the phone carriers)
- Adult content may become the “killer app” for launching the wireless Internet.
- Google’s roll-out of Android will run into stiff resistance on the part of mobile phone manufacturers because Google and handset producers have opposing views of the wireless future.
There is little magic in predicting industry events in the near term, just a lot of discipline. This discipline is a blend of applying the right intelligence with a strategic framework – not just a lot of important people in a room brainstorming an argument. Anticipating competitor moves means learning how your competitors think. War games do this very effectively, across all industries.