I can sum up the idea behind the creation of Proficiency1, an online training community for national intelligence and risk assessment professionals, in one vignette from my career. While interviewing candidates for analyst positions at the CIA, a grad student asked me which model of international relations the Agency used to analyze foreign actors. I stifled a laugh and noted we didn’t use a specific academic theory and dealt instead on a much more practical level with complicated individuals and groups with unclear motives revealed through their actions and incomplete snippets of relevant reporting.
This experience was a reminder that even the best academic programs often fail to equip graduates to succeed as analysts. The same graduates who excel at writing well-researched papers with strong theoretical underpinnings often struggle to provide insightful analysis using carefully supported arguments to their demanding customers because they are not taught critical thinking or analytic writing.
The starkest example of this problem I can think of is myself. I started my career as a CIA military analyst fresh from earning a PhD in Political Science with a focus on national security and military issues, yet I was surprised at how ill prepared I was to be an analyst. My shortcomings were particularly notable in three areas that I consistently see as problematic for most new analysts:
- My writing was neither precise nor concise. The last product I wrote before starting at the Agency was a 300-page dissertation, complete with the obligatory literature review section and packed with material to show my thesis committee how much I had learned. The dissertation process was a horrible way to prepare to be a professional analyst, where I often only had one page to present insights to my customers. Learning how to trim down and focus my writing required a lot of painful on-the-job training and imposed a steep learning curve in my first six months as an analyst.
- I reported more than I analyzed. I was good at explaining the what of an event in my early Agency products, but unfortunately my job wasn’t to be a reporter, it was to provide value-added analysis by explaining why things were happening, their significance, and sometimes what was likely to happen next. In other words, I was supposed to actually analyze unfolding events, not just report on them, something I’d never been asked or trained to do before.
- I didn’t understand my customers and their needs. My entire academic career I wrote papers for teachers who had to read them, and I chose topics that interested me, not them. Suddenly at the Agency I was writing for busy decisionmakers with specific, time-sensitive interests who could–and often did–choose to skip reading my analysis. At first I rarely provided them what they needed when they needed it because I wasn’t used to learning about and focusing on my potential customers’ requirements.
Obviously the Agency eventually taught me how to function as a professional analyst, but it took a lot of my mangers’ time and was frustrating for all involved. Imagine how much better it would have been if I had arrived with some sense of what an analyst must do to provide value to their customer.
The purpose of Proficiency1 is to help people like my mid-20s self who aspire to be an analyst or who have started their careers upgrade their skills to succeed professionally. Because Proficiency1’s offerings are self-paced, affordable, and focused on the practical vice the theoretical, we are an attractive option to going back to grad school or taking an eight-week online course, neither of which might provide specifically what’s needed for success. Our instructors are former practitioners who, like me, struggled initially as analysts, worked to develop generations of new analysts, and understand what specific skills and knowledge are required for analytic success.
Check out our initial line-up of courses and stay tuned over the next few months as we roll out new courses designed to help you or your analysts succeed. You can already take my free course, Ten Tips for Improving Your Analytic Writing: Advice From a Former Analytic Manager, and start improving today!