Weak Signal Detection & the Christmas near-miss

The Christmas near-miss bombing of the Delta airplane in Detroit has been an evolving news story this past week. The reports are filtering in that there was scattered knowledge of a Nigerian being prepared for a terrorist attack in Yemen. The young man’s father had reported him to the American embassy in Nigeria in the past few weeks as having increasingly extremist Islamic views and having gone missing. It is unclear when the father knew his son was in Yemen although it is obvious he would have shared any information he had about his son. The UK had recently refused the young man a student visa. See here and here and here for BBC reports. These are not difficult dots to connect. Of course, hindsight is 100% accurate. What has peaked my interest is the role of knowledge management in the counter-terrorism and security intelligence in the USA.

I am now looking for a knowledge management job and have set-up job searches by preference for Hong Kong, Asia, Australia and then the USA. As I peruse the daily list of KM jobs I have been struck by the high number of ‘intelligence’ related position in the USA. They normally require some sort of ‘security clearance’ or the ability to obtain one. The positions are for knowledge gathering, knowledge synthesis across agencies and groups, community building roles, technical skills in Sharepoint and other content management systems are highly desirable as are Sigma Six and other project management qualifications. It is clear that knowledge management methodologies are being widely and actively used in counter-terrorism and the intelligence communities in the USA. These methodologies do not seem to be working very well.

I first heard about ‘weak signal detection’ from Dave Snowden at the KMAP 2006 conference in Hong Kong. Soon after KMAP I spent a year in Japan and then came back to Hong Kong to study knowledge management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Knowledge management has connected a lot of the dots in my scattered work history of cooking, libraries and records management for big tobacco. See here for Dave’s KMAP presentation. Is there any ‘weak signal detection’ happening in the intelligence community? It seems that it would be their number one priority. The reports now coming out about the Christmas near-miss are very nearly the same criticisms as in the 9/11 report – failure to share information across agencies and groups within agencies, failure to connect available information and failure for those in authority to listen and understand the available information.

Are all of these knowledge management people working it US intelligence roles asleep at the wheel? I don’t think so and it is quite likely that there are many successes we never hear about. However, this one seems such a glaring miss that I would hope they give more attention to ‘weak signal detection’ and the tried and true knowledge management methodologies such as ‘sharing’ ‘openness’ ‘flatness’ ‘low-barriers’ and ‘exchange’. If all they are doing is populating increasingly large content databases with reports then they are wasting a lot of time and money.

The news now is all about ‘increasing airport security’ and ‘on the airplane security’ which are both so far off the mark that I don’t want to go on about them here. See Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog on security issues here.

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