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What's intelligence got to do with modern management?

A new publication reveals how the world of cloak-and-dagger operatives is run. Matthew Reisz writes

Intelligence operatives, as thriller fans will know, live in a strange world where conventional morality - both personal and professional - does not apply.

As Sir David Omand, former director of the Government Communications Headquarters?(GCHQ), put it, "methods must be used that are akin to steaming open the family's letters, listening at keyholes or masquerading as what one is not".

Since the working environment is one "where reticence if not outright concealment is second nature", he said we can hardly expect "behaviours on the inside necessarily to mirror the latest management-school practices designed for the corporate sector".

Sir David, who is now a visiting professor at King's College London, was speaking at an Economic and Social Research Council-funded seminar series on "Intelligence and Government in the 21st Century". Jointly organised by Brunel and Loughborough universities, the series also involved one of his successors at GCHQ, Sir David Pepper.

Papers from the seminar have been compiled into a special issue of the journal Public Policy and Administration, published in hard copy this week.

Philip Davies, senior lecturer in social sciences at Brunel and guest editor of the journal, said the results offer new insights, current and historical, into "the prosaic, workaday world of intelligence as organisation".

Not only do the former directors of GCHQ give a rare insiders' perspective on how intelligence communities work, but they also provide an excellent "counterpoint and perhaps in some ways a reality check" to the analyses and speculations of academics in the field.

Christopher Grey and Andrew Sturdy, both of Warwick Business School, look back on the wartime code-breaking operations at Bletchley Park.

Although it was "characterised by a chaotic and incoherent set of formal structures", they argue that this chaos was key to its success in accelerating the Allied victory.

"At a time when management techniques continue to be formulaic and standardised ... there may be some lessons, allegorical rather than literal, from the chaos that worked in a scruffy collection of wooden huts 70 years ago," they write.

In another paper, Christopher Murphy, of the University of Salford, argues that the Special Operations Executive - which sent agents behind enemy lines - never got its command structures right.

Although it tried to build in some "organisational restlessness", it "remained rigidly structured for the duration of its short life".

Sir David Pepper brings the issues up to date in an account of how the inward-looking GCHQ culture, "very much a product of the Cold War", was transformed to meet the challenges posed by new technologies, drug smuggling, proliferating weaponry and global terrorism.

The key has been "the adoption of a wide range of managerial practices and techniques from the private sector", in areas such as leadership, strategic planning, performance and technology management, and even customer relations.

Where "the first reaction to a serious management problem" used to be, "We have to invent a solution", it is now, "Someone somewhere must have solved this already".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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