Threat Assessments and Framing Emerging Issues

CaptureThe US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, presented a statement on the US Intelligence Community’s worldwide threat assessment to the Senate two days ago, and the paper itself has been making the rounds on the Web.  In the statement the DNI references broad topical issues like the IoT and AI, as well as regional and country-specific threats.  A quick rundown of the contents shows a range of familiar topics:

  • Global Threats
    • cyber and technology
    • terrorism
    • WMD
    • space and counterspace
    • counterintelligence
    • transnational organized crime
    • economics and natural resources
    • human security
  • Regional Threats
    • East Asia
    • Russia and Eurasia
    • Europe
    • Middle East and North Africa
    • South Asia
    • Sub-Saharan Africa
    • Latin America and Caribbean

There’s nothing in the statement that would surprise anyone who pays even casual attention to conflict & security issues around the world.  Certainly some of the strategic concerns highlighted by other commentators are nothing new in terms of emerging issues analysis: digitization and connectivity trends open up new vulnerabilities (and opportunities) through our information infrastructure; reliance on AI can lead to unanticipated outcomes, and augmented reality and VR could provide bad actors with new channels for communication, coordination, and simulation.

But the statement on threats does call to mind the general issue – confronting organizations of all types – of how far into the future, and how far outside of the typical boundaries of the topic under consideration, should an organization look in order to detect signals of change and begin identifying emerging issues, be they threats or opportunities.  I haven’t read a whole lot of literature that specifically tackles this issue as an intellectual or analytical issue; that is, tries to offer leaders guidance on how to frame those boundaries for their specific situation.  I think most of the guidance that individuals use tends to come from very general frameworks that leave a lot of the boundary-setting up to individuals without a whole lot of help.  Here I’m thinking of frameworks like SWOT analysis or Porter’s five forces model.

One way to approach this issue of determining where to draw conceptual boundaries around a topic and then to use that to help conduct things like threat assessments and emerging issues analysis is to start with some simple systems thinking and then to add a schema for sorting potential issues (threats) according to the amount of signals being received.  Let’s say a small to mid-size organization wanted to conduct its own threat and opportunities assessment in advance of a new round of strategic planning.  The organization might run the the following process:

  1. Build an influence map/soft systems diagram of their topic/industry/business
  2. Conduct research and emerging issues analysis against that model
  3. Categorize the results (see, Emerging Issues for Conflict and Security report, below)

Something like this would provide the organization with a wealth of information about a wide variety of potential threats and opportunities, sorted both “vertically” and “horizontally,” that the organization can use in developing and exploring many logical possibilities.  The information can also be sorted and grouped in different ways based on the focus that leaders want or the decisions that need to be made.

While we all tend to look for tried-and-true models for conducting various types of analysis, exploring futures is often an activity that requires a little more experimentation and customization in order to build decision support systems that best fit an organization’s specific context.  And part of the process of customizing such systems is explicitly confronting questions such as, “how should we frame and bound the threat and opportunity ‘landscape’ emerging before us?”

Statement on Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.

Emerging Issues for Conflict and Security, 2015 Report.



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