I still want to be a spy. I’m 58 years old as I write this, but I’m pretty sure that a recruiter from some clandestine government agency will call soon and teach me how to take out a bad guy with a clothespin. I guess I read too many spy novels.

The old-school spies in the books I love best focus on “HUMINT” (human intelligence) rather than “SIGINT” (signal intelligence), because writing a book about a trained killer who sits at a desk looking at data probably won’t sell many books. Better to have them out in the field with a clothespin at the ready.

We have much to thank the technology community for. We can now effectively monitor and measure many things in business with hardware and software. My recent strategy clients are rightly focused on data management as a core competency they must develop. The supply of wonderful technology solutions has increased the demand for SIGINT in both the spy and the business worlds.

However, just like the well-documented intelligence failures of governments[1] in preferring SIGINT over HUMINT, we can make the same mistake in companies. Reading reports isn’t the same as human interaction. Asynchronous methods of communication (e.g., voicemails, emails and texts) aren’t equivalent to face-to-face interaction.

Isn’t it interesting that when the doo-doo hits the fan, the president of the United States gathers his (or perhaps her, in the future) top advisers in a room to review intelligence? He doesn’t just read reports or do a quick Skype call with his top team and send out an email.

Only by walking the shop floor and sitting in a customer’s office (HUMINT) combined with other data collection tools (SIGINT) do we get a clear picture of our business.

By all means, fire up the drone, turn on the website click counter and use technology to your advantage, but don’t forget that when the president of the United States, or even the Pope, wants to really understand an issue, he isn’t afraid to hop a plane or jump in the Popemobile to get firsthand, eye-to-eye information. SIGINT only goes so far.


[1] If you’re really interested in this, read: Gabriel Margolis, “The Lack of HUMINT: A Recurring Intelligence Problem,” Global Security Studies, Spring 2013, Volume 4, Issue 2.

Please share
Follow Me