What is Intelligence?

15 February 2017

Media reporting on the private sector’s use of intelligence draws attention to both the undeniable growth of the industry and the unregulated nature of the business. Barriers to entry are low and there are now hundreds of companies worldwide which feature “Intelligence” as a part of their offering. But what does it mean?

It is worth remembering that questions surrounding the definition of intelligence are not new.

In 1946, the US historian and the CIA’s “father of intelligence analysis” Sherman Kent wrote in the Yale Review: “In the circumstances, it is surprising that there is not more general agreement and less confusion about the meaning of the basic terms. The main difficulty seems to lie in the word 'intelligence' itself, which has come to mean both what people in the trade do and what they come up with. To get this matter straight is crucial: intelligence is both a process and an end-product.”

Kent highlights the critical fact that intelligence is not simply a commodity. It is a discipline, which requires knowledge, judgement and skill. Information must be weighed and measured, ideally against established points of reference. Skilled intelligence practitioners must know where to look, how to look and, crucially, how to evaluate sources.

By the time information becomes “intelligence” in a meaningful sense it has been critically assessed and analysed. So-called “raw intelligence,” from this perspective, might be viewed as something of an oxymoron. 

Implicit in Kent’s statement is a second important idea: that intelligence is not an academic exercise. It has a purpose. Moving through the process of intelligence analysis to create the product therefore requires an additional set of competencies, among them attending to the work’s objectives and understanding how best to serve them.

All intelligence is information, but not all information is  intelligence. And not all intelligence can become evidence that can be deployed to realise objectives.

Intelligence – and all of the imagery associated with it – is more present in our news media and popular culture than ever before. It is, perhaps, worth remembering that intelligence is not the end-point in any problem solving situation, especially when addressing nuanced questions of reputation and privacy. It is the beginning.

Actions which may have long-running consequences for an individual, a business or even a government can result from getting the intelligence process right; and, equally, from getting it wrong.

In the end, defining terms will not remove from the market products that have more in common with hearsay  than any form of intelligence that Kent would recognise. But it is instructive, perhaps, to consider that intelligence – as a process and a product – is really only a tool, which can be used powerfully to advance a set of interests. Like all tools, its effective use relies entirely on the hand wielding it.

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About the Author

Lily Kennett


Lily works closely with corporate leaders and prominent individuals to help them identify and address critical gaps in their knowledge.

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