What should HR borrow from Intelligence?

01Mar '17

What should HR borrow from Intelligence?

Author: Ionut Corduneanu, ICSS

A version of this article was first published in HR Manager Magazine – february 2017

In the last six years as a Business and Competitive Intelligence[1] professional I’ve met my share of HR directors and specialists. And as any Intelligence professional would do, I’ve used some of my time and skills in order to understand and assess their needs, operational procedures, decision making power within their companies and personal traits. These efforts were returned manifold in mutually beneficial business projects and, on a more personal note, through genuine friendship.

I strongly believe that some of the best advances in any field happened by adapting the findings from one domain in another, finding new applications and generating greater knowledge. So, without claiming to be a HR professional, this article is about seeing the HR from an Intelligence field perspective, highlighting the common ground and spotting three Intelligence tradecraft tools, methods or techniques[2] found useful by my HR fellows (for each common trait). Those expecting ‘spooky’, illegal or ‘James Bond’ stunts should stop reading this article at this point, in order to avoid being disappointed.

1.HR Role

The first issue is the current role of HR within the company. Past are the days when the HR department was limited to functional services such as staffing, payroll and compensations. Today, HR leaders are a permanent presence in the board meetings, with clear responsibilities in the decision making process with regards to company’s strategic vision, improving operations through workforce competitiveness, personnel security issues, compliance with ever-complex regulations etc.

That is besides having to constantly monitor the external environment for opportunities and threats from the HR perspective (spotting key talents or anticipating workforce drain to other players). And knowing at all-time everything the CEO might want to know about its own company employees (an impossible task, but nevertheless often demanded from HR directors: ‘Why didn’t you know that X will quit the job? You are the HR director!!!’).

If a company was a human body, the HR moved from being a muscle with some simple tasks, to currently being a muscle, two dedicated sensors (one pointed within, one outside) and a part of the brain which interprets the sensors’ signals and works closely with the rest of the brain. Quite an evolution and some common ground with the Intelligence field.

Since history begins, the role of an Intelligence organization was to act as a sensor or manage a group of internal/external sensors (the joke with eyes and years), to interpret the signals, to present the current picture and to make predictions for the high decision-makers. This happened for all kind of human kinds of organizations: tribes and armies, states and global state alliances. And for some time now, for companies and groups of companies: it is called Business and Competitive Intelligence and it is a fully legal and ethical occupation.

For its part, HR doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel from the scratch when it comes to collecting and analyzing information: it can adapt the knowledge from the Intelligence field (and not only) and make its own custom build HR wheel. Let’s see what Intelligence has to offer!

As critical assets for any power-broker throughout history, the Intelligence organizations accessed ridiculous amounts of resources (including the best minds they could grab) and practically adapted findings from all fields of knowledge[3]. The Intelligence theory itself is now quite advanced and sophisticated; from its first foundation dating 2,500 years ago (an entire chapter in Sun Tzu’s Art of War is dedicated to Intelligence). And it is not secret stuff: literally hundreds of books were written on the subject. And was exported for some time to the corporate world through Business and Competitive Intelligence.

Three key take away for a HR leader aiming to fulfill the new role within his company would be: understanding the Intelligence concept (in relation to Data, Information and Knowledge), the Intelligence Process (the logical process in order to produce intelligence for decision-makers) and the Intelligence Cycle (the classic, most widespread functional model of the Intelligence Process, albeit not the most modern-one).

Using and adapting these three concepts, the HR leaders can improve their performance as owners of internal/external sensors and associated analysis of the data and information collected. In addition to that, the following three intelligence analysis skills/tools can enrich their performance as business board members (HR side apart):

  1. Critical thinking vs. Lateral thinking: the two complementary basic skills required for Intelligence professionals. It is worth mentioning that while Intelligence field praises and trains these skills, their roots are embedded in both natural and human sciences.
  2. Scenario generation: a strategic planning method that some organizations use to make flexible long-term plans (business adaptation and generalization of classic methods used by Military Intelligence).
  3. Analysis of competing hypotheses: an Intelligence analysis method (derived from the Scientific method) consisting of an algorithmic sequence of eight steps, whose application will justify the selection of a hypothesis (scenario) for the evolution of a process or phenomenon of interest for the company.

2.The ‘Human’ in ‘HR’

There are parts of any company which strictly obey the laws of nature. The problems they solve are referred in Intelligence as ‘puzzles’: there is but one logical, most efficient solution. Such departments can be the accounting (most obvious!), but also the production ones. The inputs can be scientifically measured, the process conditions controlled and the output is the desired one, if the technical specifications are respected. Outside human factor, the predictions happen: water WILL boil at 100o C!

The HR has a different challenge: it has to deal with people. They are anything but predictable in a scientific way. Their actions are based on a mixture of logic and emotions, with flawed decision making mechanisms. Their skills and motivations are shifty and hard to assess, not to mention their health status (or the one of their close relatives).

As opposed to money, real estate, machines and knowledge about processes, people are not an asset. They are not owned by the company and they can quit or work harder, depending on their very personal and subjective will.

All these are the variables the HR leader has to work with and find solutions in order for the company to get the best from the ‘resource made of people’. Most of the problems solved by the HR department are referred in Intelligence as ‘mystery’: there are different solutions and outcomes, each efficient in a different way, all possible in the future.

The Intelligence field faces the same challenges of HR, sometimes at a larger scale. Intelligence has to describe and predict the current and future possible reality(s) of competitors, partners, neutral parties, as well as its own organization (company, state). But the subjects analyzed by Intelligence have an embedded human factor (people who decide the actions of all those players). From its very beginning, the Intelligence field had to understand, assess and predict human skills, motivations and actions. Just like today’s HR job.

The ‘human factor’ in both HR and Intelligence fields makes them not exact sciences, but human/soft sciences, arts or tradecrafts (all concepts have their merits).

Over time, Intelligence professionals invented, tested and perfected a great arsenal of methods and techniques useful for collecting information from people and analyzing it (sub-field referred as HUMINT-Human Intelligence). These are the offensive tools used to interact with and analyze the people from the outside and internal environment. While virtually all of them are publicly accessible, many are little known to the public.

Among these tools, the following three were found the most useful in dealing with the ‘human factor’ from a HR perspective:

  1. Elicitation: an information-gathering process from human sources by using a guided discussion in order to hide the collector’s intention to obtain information, and the fact that they were provided. This method goes way beyond the natural ability each of us employ to a certain degree in trying to get information from people not willing to share.
  2. SWOT-TOWS Analysis (Mirroring SWOTs): an Intelligence analysis method derived from the classical SWOT, offering insight in the relation of two parties (for example company-employee).
  3. Body Language techniques adapted by the Intelligence field to slip trust in an interlocutor, as well as to identify deceptive behavior from his part.


3. Personnel security

Separately from the offensive or proactive interactions with both external and internal environment, companies may find themselves in defensive or reactive situations, with HR at the core of their defensive efforts. The following paragraphs are not something pleasantly or openly acknowledged by HR, but I have yet to find one who can deny it.

The HR leaders have to sort out (or at least be part of the team dealing with) some of the most unusual situations related to people employed by the company or outside people with some kind of relations to their employees. Anything can happen: people badmouthing the company over Internet (there are special forums dedicated to this), anonymous whistleblowers, conflicts between people, improper conduct at workplace, harassment, domestic problems affecting work-performance, criminal offences (data thefts are trendy nowadays), people migrating to competitors with critical information and the list can go on. And a lot of times somebody asks rhetorically ‘How did we hire the troublemaker?’ or ‘Who promoted him/her to this position?’, the easiest witch to hunt being HR.

These situations put the HR in the shoes of an investigator or ‘company firefighter’ doing ‘damage control’. The more advanced the corporate structure, the burden of solving (potential) crises is shared with specialized positions/departments: security, anti-fraud, competitive-counter intelligence etc. Other non-threatening names may be assigned to sweeten and mask the activity of these people (advisor, VP for internal environment etc). Make no mistake: the job is to protect (fully legaly) the company, its image and the top management from both external and internal threats and, if companies were states, words like national security and counter-intelligence would have been associated with them.

Semantics aside, the defensive job is the same in the corporate world, but at a different scale. For HR leaders there are but two choices: either they have to do it because there is nobody else in the company, or somebody else is doing it. If somebody else fills the gap he has to work closely with the HR leader. At a minimum the HR has to be in the information loop about the issue and offer the specialized support in officially sorting out the contract with the employee(s) involved. Because of the sensitivity of some cases, the HR leader cannot delegate the responsibility.

So, at a minimum, the HR directors should have a proper understanding of what are the concepts of Threat, Vulnerability and Risk, what are the relations between them, what are a Critical Assets List and a Risk Matrix. Besides bringing common knowledge in the relation between HR and specialized personnel security officers, these can be very helpful in shaping staffing policies and assessing their outcomes.

All these concepts and their mechanics were long ago evolved in traditional Intelligence (with its defensive part Counter-Intelligence/CI), before being exported to the business world. Summarizing the best assets HR can learn from Intelligence in the field of Personnel Security, my best picks are the following:

  1. Understanding the key concepts related to Security and their mechanics: Security, Threat, Vulnerability, Risk, Risk Matrix
  2. Healthy Skepticism skill (not paranoia!): highly praised, trained and developed in Intelligence, starting with one’s own biases. Combined with Vetting Procedures and Techniques it is a powerful tool in assessing one subject skill, motivation and character before hiring/promoting.
  3. Information Protection skill, part of it being Counter-Elicitation (the opposite of the offensive Elicitation method previously mentioned): most information handled by the HR department is sensitive so this is already a core-skill for HR, but probably to a lesser extent compared to Intelligence.


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                  I find no better way of concluding this article about HR and Intelligence, than identifying one more characteristic these two fields have in common: the profound understanding that continuous education and self-education is the key of becoming a better professional. Both HR and Intelligence professionals know that Knowledge is boundless and each of us has so much more to learn and discover.

[1] A systematic and ethical process for gathering, analyzing, and managing any combination of Data, Information, and Knowledge concerning the Business environment in which a company operates that, when acted upon, will confer a significant Competitive advantage or enable sound decisions to be made.

[3] Sometimes they gave knowledge back: just now, declassified British intelligence documents revealed that they build the first computer in order to decipher cryptic messages during WWII. For fifty year we thought the first computer was ENIAC, its public offspring.

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