Decentralized Intelligence

Sociologist Duncan Watts has an intriguing piece in Slate entitled, “Decentralized Intelligence – What Toyota can teach the 9/11 commission about intelligence gathering.” He observes that, while our instinct during crises is to create more centralization, it is almost always the wrong answer. He cites the example of a factory that produced a unique valve for Toyota that burned down in 1997, threatening to cripple the company’s just-in-time delivery system.

More than 200 companies reorganized themselves and each other to develop at least six entirely different production processes, each using different tools, different engineering approaches, and different organizational arrangements. Virtually every aspect of the recovery effort had to be designed and executed on the fly, with engineers and managers sharing their successes and failures alike across departmental boundaries, and even between firms that in normal times would be direct competitors.

Within three days, production of the critical valves was in full swing, and within a week, production levels had regained their pre-disaster levels. The kind of coordination this activity required had not been consciously designed, nor could it have been developed in the drastically short time frame required. The surprising fact was that it was already there, lying dormant in the network of informal relations that had been built up between the firms through years of cooperation and information sharing over routine problem-solving tasks. No one could have predicted precisely how this network would come in handy for this particular problem, but they didn’t need to—by giving individual workers fast access to information and resources as they discovered their need for them, the network did its job anyway.

Much the same kind of recovery happened in lower Manhattan in the days after Sept. 11, 2001. With much of the World Trade Center in rubble and several other nearby buildings closed indefinitely, nearly 100,000 workers had no place to go on Sept. 12. In addition to the unprecedented human tragedy of lost friends and colleagues, dozens of firms had to cope with the sudden disappearance of their offices along with much of their hardware, data, and in some cases, critical members of their leadership teams. Yet somehow they survived. Even more dramatically, almost all of them were back in business within a week—an achievement that even their own risk management executives viewed with amazement.

These are interesting examples. It is likely true that a bottom-up approach to management is more beneficial than a top-down model, simply because it takes advantage of an amazing amount of capability that is spread out in any sizable organization. While acknowledging that there are some obvious differences between the manufacturing sector and national security, Watts contends,

What should be clear, however, is that combining the many different agencies involved in intelligence gathering and analysis at a single point—that of the director of intelligence—is almost certain not to succeed in delivering the kind of ambiguous yet essential functionality that everyone wants. So, some other kind of connectivity, along with a more creative approach, is required—one that incorporates not only the sharing of information across agency boundaries (a recommendation of the commission’s that has received relatively little attention), but active collaboration, joint training, and the development of long term personal relationships between agencies as well. Creative intelligence analysis has a lot in common with other kinds of problem-solving activities: thinking outside the box, challenging deeply held assumptions, and combining different, often seemingly unrelated, kinds of expertise and knowledge. By understanding how innovative and successful organizations have been able to solve large-scale, complex problems, without anyone “at the top” having to micromanage the process, the intelligence community could learn some valuable lessons that might help it escape the mistakes of the past.

This is all plausible. The problem, however, is that, ultimately, one individual–the president–has to make policy decisions on most of the matters that intelligence agencies work on. That means that someone has to decide what information gets to the president. There has to be some sort of system in place to make that happen. Further, decisions about funding have to be made, and they can’t be made cybernetically. A process such as Watts describes could be encouraged even in an organization that is consolidated at the top of the org chart.

Update: Dan Drezner has some comments on this and other suggested reforms of the intelligence system. Like me, he’s not sold on the idea that we should adopt the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations simply because they say so.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb Ely says:

    My own opinion is that centralization will do little to solve the underlying problem of institutional resistance to analysts who put forth ideas out of sync with the reigning paradigm. It could make the situation worse. See my posting

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    There is no substitute for intelligence in the policy makers when they receive “intelligence”. If they insist on being told only what they want to hear, which is not very intelligent, nothing will help except failure. As we have seen.

    But there are other things more central direction could do, particularly if given the power to control funding and personel. These lie in the realm of coordinating the data gathering and data flow, which seems to have been routinely interrupted by middle management. That data was not assembled in a timely manner and linked by relevance is a flaw which should be correctible.

  3. Boyd says:

    While Watts’ suggestions certainly seem valid, there’s one overriding obstacle in the Intelligence community: compartmentalization. A decent case could be made for modifying the current implementation of “need to know,” but it would be difficult to accomplish given the fervent belief in maintaining the status quo among “the masses.”

    Making this kind of change would require, of course, buy-in from the bottom up. If it’s imposed from on high, and the folks doing the job don’t believe in it, it’ll never happen.

    Good luck making analysts at CIA want to share more with the FBI, and vice versa.

  4. The Monk says:

    Too much centralization can never be good because by definition it stifles the creativity and ingenuity to adjust and experiment. Thus, the complete failure of command-and-control economies in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, the obliteration of China’s economy during the Cultural Revolution. Conversely, look at the success of experimental states like Michigan and Wisconsin in reforming welfare after being given block grants by the Federal government instead of having to follow specific Federal commands.