Consulting

There is a post at Politico about the adventures of McKinsey & Company, a giant consulting firm, in the world of intelligence:

America’s vast spying apparatus was built around a Cold War world of dead drops and double agents. Today, that world has fractured and migrated online, with hackers and rogue terrorist cells, leaving intelligence operatives scrambling to keep up.

So intelligence agencies did what countless other government offices have done: They brought in a consultant. For the past four years, the powerhouse firm McKinsey and Co., has helped restructure the country’s spying bureaucracy, aiming to improve response time and smooth communication.

Instead, according to nearly a dozen current and former officials who either witnessed the restructuring firsthand or are familiar with the project, the multimillion dollar overhaul has left many within the country’s intelligence agencies demoralized and less effective.

These insiders said the efforts have hindered decision-making at key agencies — including the CIA, National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

They said McKinsey helped complicate a well-established linear chain of command, slowing down projects and turnaround time, and applied cookie-cutter solutions to agencies with unique cultures. In the process, numerous employees have become dismayed, saying the efforts have at best been a waste of money and, at worst, made their jobs more difficult. It’s unclear how much McKinsey was paid in that stretch, but according to news reports and people familiar with the effort, the total exceeded $10 million.

Consulting to U.S.-government agencies on a grand scale grew out of the perceived successes in World War II of civilian analysts who were embedded in military organizations. To the extent that the civilian analysts were actually helpful*, it was because they focused on specific operations, such as methods of searching for enemy submarines. In such cases, the government client can benefit from an outside look at the effectiveness of the operations, the identification of failure points, and suggestions for changes in weapons and tactics that are informed by first-hand observation of military operations.

Beyond that, however, outsiders are of little help, and may be a hindrance, as in the case cited above. Outsiders can’t really grasp the dynamics and unwritten rules of organizational cultures that embed decades of learning and adaptation.

The consulting game is now (and has been for decades) an invasive species. It is a perverse outgrowth of operations research as it was developed in World War II. Too much of a “good thing” is a bad thing — as I saw for myself many years ago.
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* The success of the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine warfare (ASW) operations had been for decades ascribed to the pioneering civilian organization known as the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group (ASWORG). However, with the publication of The Ultra Secret in 1974 (and subsequent revelations), it became known that code-breaking may have contributed greatly to the success of various operations against enemy forces, including ASW.

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