Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Business Review

How Corporate Intelligence Teams Help Businesses Manage Risk

| January 4, 2022

In January 2020, a small team at the global financial services technology company Fiserv began closely watching early warning signs of a new disease outbreak in the regional capital of Wuhan, China. The team triangulated reliable media sources and applied their best analytical judgment based on comparable early indicators from historic outbreaks, such as SARS. Prescient analysis revealed a potentially major disease was in the offing. The team recommended against executive travel even before the virus had been detected in the U.S., earlier than most companies or governments. Scenario assessments of the potential human and economic impact led the company to invest in protective equipment for personnel early on and mitigate risks by swiftly transitioning to remote work.

Why did Fiserv correctly anticipate looming risk while others languished behind the news cycle? Because it had a dedicated and trusted geo-political analysis team, which practices intelligence work, scanning the horizon and keeping senior leadership informed of growing risk and consequent business implications.

In a world of contradictory and misleading information, this kind of intelligence provides situational awareness of cyber threats, security risks, political instability, or other trouble brewing. Smart business leaders consciously use intelligence to shape their decisions.

The word “intelligence” is a loaded one. Some confuse it with corporate espionage, as described in Barry Meier’s Spooked, which portrays private-sector intelligence practitioners as dangerous renegades. Companies can cross the line. Among other egregious examples, an eBay team targeted and harassed bloggers and Credit Suisse used private investigators to surveil employees. These are the bad news exceptions.

Every day, private-sector intelligence professionals legally and ethically steer companies away from trouble and towards opportunity and decisiveness. Organizations, such as the Association of International Risk Intelligence Professionals, are establishing standards and codes of conduct, and academic institutions, such as Mercyhurst University, are producing a new generation of private-sector focused intelligence professionals.

Companies invest in security and intelligence because it helps the bottom line. According to Lewis Sage-Passant, a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University studying private sector intelligence, these functions are now “ubiquitous”: Virtually every major company either has a security intelligence capacity or is building one.

Seeing Around Corners

The best intelligence functions help leaders understand what is happening and what is likely to happen next. Erica Brescia, who until recently served as chief operating officer at GitHub, described the value of their intelligence team during the Covid-19 pandemic: “Our team helped us to identify threats and communicate effectively with multiple audiences throughout the company and across national and cultural boundaries to keep our employees safe and the business running.”

Likewise, Microsoft Global Intelligence Program Manager Liz Maloney told us: “Intelligence is the first step in understanding your risk…Our mission is to enable decision makers to mitigate risk and to respond to residual risk that we can’t avoid.”

A survey of 94 private-sector intelligence professionals revealed that their positions were often created in response to a “threat or crisis.” In the aftermath of terror attacks, cyber assaults, disinformation campaigns, and sudden political shifts, companies belatedly realized that a small investment in situational awareness is better than costly late reaction to unanticipated problems.

In a stark example, a fatal 2013 terror attack on a BP/Statoil/Sonatrach joint venture in In Amenas, Algeria, led both BP and Statoil to significantly enhance their intelligence capabilities to better identify hidden threats.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kolbe, Paul and Maria Robson Morrow.“How Corporate Intelligence Teams Help Businesses Manage Risk.” Harvard Business Review, January 4, 2022.