You must demonstrate expertise to succeed as an analyst, regardless of what you analyze, but what exactly does it mean to be an expert? My public- and private-sector experience suggests there are three dimensions of expertise, and you gain knowledge in each area in different ways.
The first dimension of expertise an analyst must master is tradecraft, the methodology required to do the core elements of the job. For most analysts, this means skills such as critical thinking, the use of analytic tools and techniques, the ability to collect and organize data, and niche abilities like order-of-battle analysis or cyber forensics. I also consider analytic writing and briefing as critical subsets of tradecraft.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, even the best academic programs fail to equip graduates with the tradecraft skills they need to succeed as professional analysts. As a result, analysts tend to learn these on the job or in profession-specific training. For example, CIA analysts all go through an intensive, months-long Career Analyst Program to teach basic analytic skills. Back on the job, managers and mentors continue the education process, helping junior analysts hone their tradecraft by producing real products for real customers. Private-sector firms tend to bring in outside experts like me to train their analysts while providing similar on-the-job training in each company’s specific methodology for delivering analytic insights.
The second dimension of expertise is domain knowledge, the basic substantive information associated with whatever subjects you follow as an analyst. This could range from an understanding of economics and Brazil if you’re an economic analyst following Brazil to an in-depth knowledge of solid- and liquid-propellent rocket motors and guidance systems if you’re a ballistic missile analyst.
Over time your domain expertise should broaden and deepen so you can address issues with greater granularity while placing them in a larger context. If you’re a cyber analyst who can speak at length to Iranian hacking techniques and recent attacks, including being able to address the organizations involved and some of the relevant technical details, you’ll increase your credibility with customers. If you can take this to the next level and compare and contrast Iranian efforts with those of Russia and North Korea, for example, you’ll be seen as a true expert.
Academia tends to do a good job providing a sound foundation of domain knowledge. At the CIA I hired plenty of people right out of school who had extensive coursework on the Middle East, spoke Arabic, and had spent a semester or more in the region, for example. Analysts usually build on this academic foundation primarily through on-the-job experience combined with independent reading—the fact that most of the best analysts I’ve worked with were all lifelong learners made such continued education second nature to them.
The third dimension of expertise is organizational acumen, which is an understanding of your own organization, its people, processes, customs, and customers. I define it as knowing how to get stuff done efficiently and effectively across organizational boundaries. It’s knowing whom to ask for help or information and having the positive relationships so that they will readily assist you. This dimension of expertise is important to analysts because they almost always work as part of a team embedded in a broader organizational structure that they must successfully navigate to get their analysis to customers. Organizational acumen also facilitates the type of collaboration and cooperation that can enrich analytic products and create new career opportunities for analysts.
Unlike tradecraft or substantive expertise, organizational acumen is highly organization specific. Not only can you not learn it in school, you’ll need to redevelop this acumen each time you change jobs. For example, after 22 years at the CIA, I had highly developed organizational acumen. My in-depth knowledge of how the Agency worked and my extensive network were critical to my success and became increasingly important as I rose through the ranks. My acumen reset to zero when I left the Agency for a private-sector consulting firm, which had very different processes and cultural norms. I was a fish out of water until I began to build an understanding of my new environment, at which point I happened to move to a software company, and my organizational acumen reset to zero again.
The best way to develop your organizational acumen when you start a new job is to be proactive in learning about your new environment. Don’t just read the employee handbook and take the required training; learn as much as you can about all relevant aspects of the organization. Talk to people outside of your unit about what they do, ask your bosses about their experiences and advice, and above all, network. Build relationships across the organization that can provide a more comprehensive view of how things work. You’ll have to rebuild this network and knowledge base with each new job, but as your experience in how to do this grows, you’ll face a flatter learning curve with each move.
Good luck building expertise along all three dimensions, and if you’re a manager of analysts, good luck helping them on their journey of professional growth. We started Proficiency1 to help with this growth. We have several courses available to develop tradecraft skills and more on the way that focus on domain knowledge, such as a comprehensive overview of China’s military. Our newest course, Strategies for Success as an Analyst, provides a roadmap for overall analytic success and for developing the organizational acumen you’ll need no matter where you work. Let me know if there’s something else you or your analysts need to become three-dimensional experts.