Small Wars Journal

Promoting Cross-Cultural Competence in Intelligence Professionals

Thu, 04/25/2013 - 3:30am

Disclaimer: All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in these studies or papers are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect official positions or views of the Defense Intelligence Agency or any other US Government entity, past or present. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying US Government endorsement of the paper’s  factual statements and interpretations.

Abstract: Recent publications have highlighted alternative analytical thinking strategies to inform and facilitate improved intelligence analysis.  Red teaming, fast and slow thinking, divergent thinking, as well as other strategies have been identified as essential to understanding today's radically different, non-traditional landscape that analysts and collectors are expected to operate in: to understand, to provide meaning and context, and at times forecast likely outcome scenarios. However, parsing out skill-based competencies that are essential to alternative thinking strategies and methods have not been undertaken.   Mitigating cognitive, cultural and a host of tradecraft biases is essential for intelligence professionals to navigate through today's culturally complex environments.  Adopting the perspective of contemporary cultural groups, including nation-states, often defies understanding because the intelligence professional is challenged to both appreciate and consequently discern meaning of behavior that is predicated on vastly different beliefs and value systems.  Fundamental to this dissonance is a markedly different cultural reality resulting from different histories, traditions and the stasis of culture.  The professional's western and deeply seated worldview impedes either the analysis itself, or is perjured by the cognitive restrictions imposed by the structured analytic strategies used.  Cross-cultural competence is a collection of baseline skill-based competencies, such as perspective-taking, cultural sensemaking, and cultural self-awareness that when combined with regional and cultural knowledge can mitigate the conscious and even unconscious influence of the professional's worldview --their Weltanschauung-- and tradecraft analytic strategies while expanding the aperture of potential meaning to foreign behavior.

Culture is a framework used to put one’s environment (physical, social and cultural) in context and perspective –it is a manifestation of one’s worldview—a personal Weltanschauung.  Cross- cultural competence is ownership to a conscious awareness that gives meaning and understanding to human behavior while mitigating intervening cognitive and cultural barriers that exists between and among individuals and groups.


The intelligence process consists of a variety of interactional and cognitive skills and abilities to include tradecraft, critical and divergent thinking, and alternative analysis methods (i.e. red-teaming) to observe, collect, and discern meaning from foreign actions, actors and activities.  However, this process may be incomplete and ineffective in discerning socio-cultural perspectives of individuals or groups from another (foreign) culture for several reasons: the intelligence professional may not be cognizant of foundational cultural concepts and how they are applied to a specific region, country or locality; the intelligence professional usually does not take into account the influence of his/her cultural (western) orientation and cognitive biases; and the cognitive restrictions and limitations of the traditional critical analytic methods used is not considered.  The capacity to know and apply the right kind of cultural and regional knowledge (and socio-cultural datasets), to understand foreign mindsets, to adopt a perspective from another culture to effectively contextualize the behavior of others, and to facilitate successful cross-cultural interactions are essential for intelligence officers.  This is especially true as intelligence support to conventional warfare strategy and operations is more frequently supplanted by supporting asymmetrical warfare that includes as actors cultural groups that are invariably very different from the intelligence officer’s socio-cultural frame of reference.

Engaging cross-cultural competence’s baseline interpersonal skills (cultural self-awareness, cultural sensemaking and perspective taking, and more advanced cross-cultural competence interactional/intercultural strategies) promote improved collection methods in culturally complex situations and can influence and produce more culturally nuanced and accurate analysis and assessments.  Cultural sensemaking is a collection of skills enhancing and/or modify existing cultural schemas (models) of the intelligence professional.  These schemas can restrict and influence an individual’s decision (understanding, assessment and priority) on what data to collect, and the consequent meaning of the behavior being observed.   Perspective-taking is an essential skill-based cross-cultural competency encompassing the ability to perceive events the way others do and understand how other people’s cultural values and assumptions affect their behavior.  Perspective taking helps minimize the various kinds of cognitive and cultural bias an intelligence officer may encounter during analysis.   Cultural Priming, a research and study program by the Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL) considers both sensemaking and perspective-taking as means to improve or mitigate one’s social, cultural, and learned biases in the context of observing and analyzing the foreign intelligence and information battle space.  Engaging these competencies can promote a more effective intelligence process and a more effective intelligence professional. 

The Need for Cross-Cultural Competence in Intelligence

“…the cognitive process of understanding or even recognizing that there are cultural and cognitive differences is not intuitive at all….This effort often appears doomed to failure, because, “trying to think like them” all too often results in applying the logic of one’ own culture and experience to try to understand the actions of others, without knowing that one is using the logic of one’s own culture.”   

Rob Johnston[1]

Today’s adaptive and changing national security strategy and the resultant complex intelligence missions increase the imperative to understand the behaviors and motivation for those behaviors of cultural groups outside of the traditional states, state actors, non-state actors, and militaries U.S. intelligence organizations have encountered and focused on in the past.  Contemporary non-state actors consist of tribes, kin groups, ethnic and religious groups, as well as terrorist groups – some large, with complex organizations – but more often than not radical groups with just a few members.  Traditionally, as part of the intelligence process, the analyst parsed actor and military behaviors from a nation-state level perspective and consequently attributed motivations and actions based on conventional and/or Cold War security paradigms. Today, our intelligence mission must consider non-state actors whose beliefs and values[2] are dramatically different from those of the intelligence collector and analyst and likely different from those values and beliefs of a collective group attributed to a particular nation-state.   Understanding the array of behavioral meanings among all actors that lead in conflict to better assess future events is an intelligence imperative.  Defeating terrorist groups and extremist organizations is an essential element in the intelligence mission support portfolio of not only the current environment, but also the future asynchronous, fluid, and borderless, or transnational environments.    

However, the emphasis on “left of bang”[3] and the population-centric approach to both mission and strategy has added responsibilities for supporting the notion that “…long-term efforts toward maximizing host nation and partner capabilities in promoting human security will work against extremism from gaining not only a foothold, but a foundational haven in potentially unstable regions or sustaining extremism in present force.”[4]  These efforts consist of missions that aid in “…forming a government, humanitarian assistance, reconstruction efforts, infrastructure development, reintegration and reconciliation programs, and establishing military and police forces.”[5]  Thus, there will be greater engagement with local populations in the “left-of bang” time frame to identify, reduce, and eliminate a spectrum of threats while attempting to build effective partnerships to effectively mitigate and combat extremism in the long term.  Many of these populations, societies, and social groups are part of cultures possessing dramatically  different worldviews with contrasting perspectives on strategy and operations than are presently acknowledged or understood by today’s intelligence officer and the intelligence community at large.  The bottom line is that whether in support of a conflict or helping build security in unstable regions, it is essential to not only clearly discern, but also contextualize accurately the meaning and motivation of individuals and cultural groups (visible through shared patterns of behavior) to accurately understand how they think, what they think, and what is important to them,  “…failed and failing states create circumstances whereby aggrieved populations and non-state actors can assert themselves in ways that are not easily comprehensible to the [intelligence community] IC.”[6]  The recent emphasis on socio-cultural analysis as well as the utility of understanding the relationship between human culture and the physical and geographical landscape[7] offer not just different perspectives of human activity but open entirely new windows into understanding the behavior and events in light of the underlying belief and value system of a wide array of cultural groups that are actors in contemporary global relations.

Cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran, in his recent book on origins of terrorism,[8] attempts to reframe the genesis of terrorism not in terms of conventional wisdom that paints terrorists as misguided youths preyed on by immoral nihilists using Islam to convey their agendas. Instead, Atran’s anthropology uncovers terrorist as youths lying at the seams of a global awakening that offers a world and existence more flat, fluid and tribal than traditional ethnically-based hierarchies.  In this global connectivity, cultural groups and identities transcend traditional ethnic and religious groups to promote a shared sovereignty through ‘sacred values’ that extend beyond our own determination of what religion is and does.  What ties these groups together and motivates and sustains involvement are fictive kin and family association, and brotherhoods that are formed and sustained around neighborhood soccer teams and social networks more so than mosque attendance.   Atran’s work not only illustrates the importance of understanding beliefs and values of those who are foreign, but just as importantly, illustrates mitigating the effects of our own cultural orientation biases.

The Traditional Intelligence Process

Cultural influences are typically touched on within US Intelligence Community (IC) analyses as peripheral factors, described with passing references, and often in general and superficial terms.” 

Matthew T. Berrett[9]

Intelligence professionals, like all people, unconsciously and consciously, thin slice information presented to them.  Thin slicing is the human shortcut to find patterns in events based only on narrow windows of experience: "thin slices."[10]  People build mental models, schemas or frames[11] and apply them to the world around them ostensibly to promote more effective processing of information.   Specifically, individuals construct a series of models that are influenced and conditioned by biological and cultural factors.  People use these models to make sense of their world –it becomes their Weltanschauung, or worldview. These models also provide frameworks in which to consider the importance of the information they process. 

Discerning the array of individual and cultural group attitudes and behaviors that are now, and will become, a major intelligence focus is paramount.  Beliefs, values and behaviors of extended kin groups, tribes, ethnicities, and even nations different from the intelligence officer’s belief and value system requires different and necessarily divergent ways of thinking about the world. When prompted to think like them (in some cases during intercultural interaction), and act like them, the intelligence officer’s intuition (arguably structured from cultural and psychological-based cognitive biases) gets in the way as information about people from other cultures is processed through existing cultural models or schemas that have been formed within a structured, biased and dogmatic learned environment reinforced over a lifetime. Individuals readily, and usually unknowingly, remain mired in their own conclusions looking for supporting evidence and engaging confirmation bias while ignoring contradictions to his/her first impressions. Individuals pride themselves on their intuitions; “it is hard to back track and change opinions.”[12]  These biases interfere with establishing and sustaining critical relationships with foreign intelligence sources while bias can extend to strategic (future) analysis where recent critique of intelligence organizations suggest that analysts are prone to confirmation bias as well as the competing bias that exists between strategic vs. tactical warning perspectives.[13]

Rob Johnston, author of an anthropological study of the US Intelligence Community, suggests that individuals naturally assume that others cognitively process and perceive the world in the same way.[14] This orientation not only results in, but also perpetuates biases based on social, psychological and cognitive processes entrenched from a lifetime of enculturation.  This adversely impacts the ability to understand meaningful information and resultant behavior of those from a different culture.  These long-developed and entrenched expectations and biases of the intelligence professional  no longer apply and, “the task of breaking free from one’s customary perspective on their behavior in order to generate culturally appropriate explanations for the behavior …is far more complex.”[15]  To Johnston, ‘trying to think like them’ “…all too often results in applying the logic of one’s own culture and experience to try to understand the action of other.”[16]  In essence, the human proclivity to thin slicing produces unintended consequences, relies on restrictive cultural models for context, and becomes an impediment to understanding people’s thoughts and resultant behaviors, thereby constraining the ability to derive meaning from those actions.   

A recent publication by Jeannie Johnson and Matthew Berrett on “mapping culture” echoes Rob Johnston’s perspective and discusses analyst biases including those inherent in the analyst’s academic training, and a more pervasive bias toward mirror imaging; “Despite vast information resources and exposure to exotic cultures, Americans continue to overemphasize similarity and assume that other social groups have values and aspirations in line with their own.”[17]  However, as Johnson and Berrett refer to other cultures as “exotic,” this determination also poses a reinforcement of American (western) cultural distinctness and inherent ethnocentrism. Traditional analysis produces forecasts and/or explanations linked to a logical (deductive) processing of existing evidence, whereas alternative analysis ostensibly “…seeks to help analysts and policy-makers stretch their thinking through structured techniques that challenge underlying assumptions and broaden the range of possible outcomes considered [italics added].[18]

Alternative analysis (where it departs from traditional analysis: “…breaking down problems into constituent parts, such as causes and effects, and using logical operations to identify and test hypotheses for purpose of explanation and prediction.”[19]) is still bound to the structure and goals of the analysis and of the organization in terms of products and their overall function. The intelligence community has recently started addressing the need to consider alternative perspectives to mitigate the effects of thin-slicing and the resultant bias during analysis.  The intelligence community has recently published analytic policies explicitly stating that alternative analysis should be incorporated where appropriate.[20]

Red-teaming is a specific kind of alternative analysis that considers an adversary’s perspective.  Typically, in the decision making process, “the goal of most red teams is to enhance decision making, either by specifying the adversary’s preferences and strategies or by simply acting as a devil’s advocate.”[21]  While the resultant analysis may not align with traditional analysis outcomes, by itself this technique is still a construct in confirmation bias, and the consequent analysis will still have its mechanical and procedural flaws while seeking viable and valid sensemaking and perspective taking views and alternatives. 

Divergent thinking can also be considered an alternative analytic strategy.  Divergent thinking: “…thinking of many different possible solutions, answers, or responses to a problem, question, or prompt”[22]  promotes creativity in offering multiple solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking drives to elucidate future paths of events or activities through the active consideration of possible options for an unknown or uncertain future, or when a solution is unknown.  Essential to divergent thinking is connecting and combining variables that result when considering a variety of options.  In other words, divergent thinking as evidenced by its inclusion into an already existing tradecraft process, and requirements for outcomes based on specific events and limited application may not fully engage the more prevalent transnational threats[23] where adversaries are not state-actors, and may actually exist within allied or neutral states.  These threats and their actors may often transcend a variety of conventional borders, boundaries and accepted regions while assuming dynamic identities that are resistant to existing and conventional categorization and taxonomies.   The array of cultural groups that make up the contemporary international landscape are guided by different and not easily understood value and belief systems.  Gaining and or portraying perspectives necessary for alternative analysis, or red-teaming based on often times dramatically contrary worldviews of the analyst, is both difficult and problematic at best –catastrophic in consequence at worst. Thus, at the end of the analytic process, this difficulty produces incomplete or misleading predictions, let alone misleading contextual comprehension and understanding.  In fact, characterization of “adversary” based on conventional thinking envisions a reciprocal dyadic relationship that restricts the validity, meaning and consequent use of that perception, and limits the way the cultural group/adversary is considered in analysis. This paper suggests that cross-cultural competence is an essential set of knowledge and interpersonal skills that prepares intelligence professionals for the current, the emerging and the changing world orders, and their role and function in collecting relevant data to produce a more complete, useful and accurate analytic outcome.

Cross-Cultural Competence Baseline

“That’s the real cultural question. Do I do it through my prism, or did I try to understand another prism which will give me more clarity and [bring me] closer to truth?” 

GEN Anthony Zinni (RET)[24]

Engaging in a range of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that includes acquiring and applying cultural and region knowledge through appropriate lenses is instrumental in preparing for present and future intelligence mission paradigms.  This combination of skills and knowledge is understood as cross-cultural competence.[25] There is a burgeoning and well-developed sense within the Defense Department and Intelligence Community (IC) of cross-cultural viability and validity from research, through the introduction of cross-cultural competence in learning and training programs, and specified consideration of cross-cultural competence in existing DoD policy.[26]

Cross-cultural competence is the ability to navigate in complex interpersonal and cross-cultural situations, interpret or express ideas/concepts across worldviews and cultural divides, and to make sense of foreign behavior.  Possessing and using knowledge and skill-based interpersonal competencies both influences and facilitates successful cross-cultural relationships, and promotes the ability to discern meaningful behavior, as well as providing context to help interpret past events and gauge potentiality of future events/behaviors.  Applying cross-cultural competence “up and down” the intelligence process is not a separate activity; successful application is the result of a seamless integration of cognitive and interactional skills that make the process “better”.  Two of the “baseline” skill-based competencies within cross-cultural competence are cultural sensemaking and perspective-taking.  Manifesting these concepts into skills  can mitigate the effects of cognitive and cultural biases, while  re-focusing the cultural lens of the intelligence professional –not only necessary, but essential in contemporary data extraction and analysis.

Sensemaking is the deliberate effort to understand events.[27]  It is a cognitive process that people engage in when making sense of their universe, especially when uncertainty of the meaning of past and existing, or current events, coupled with the uncertainty of how these events may portend future behavior is real.  This process is not uncommon to intelligence analysis.  In his book, Sensemaking: A Structure for an Intelligence Revolution, Moore refers to sensemaking as “…mindful planning and questioning that leads to foraging for answers…. [and]  form [s] a theory or systematic interpretation of the issue that subsequently must be explained.”[28]  Weick (in Moore 2005) sees sensemaking “…as a multiple-step process by which someone goes from becoming aware of “something, in an ongoing flow of events, something in the form of a surprise, a discrepant set of cues, [or] something that does not fit to a useful understanding of the phenomenon.”[29] Fishbein and Treverton adopt this notion of sensemaking to alternative analysis and add organization’s goals and needs as a prism to guide interest in what behavior and events are useful and relevant.[30]   Inherent in sensemaking is mindfulness, more a condition of cognitive flexibility and general readiness that is alert to not only the continuation of existing patterns of behaviors, but awareness when existing and recognized patterns cease and new or modified patterns arise.

Cultural sensemaking refers to the process by which people make sense of different cultural behaviors, and is often a response to a surprise and/or a failure of expectations of people’s behavior with regards to its dissonance to the belief system and values of the observer. Cultural sensemaking differs from alternative analysis methods in both process and effect, yet sensemaking shares the goal of mindfulness as being cognitively alert to uncertainty in both meaning of behavior and future activities.  If the conventional Cold War landscape and actors existed today, the framework of traditional analysis would be sufficient to explain behavior and probe expected outcomes given a more or less constrained number of options and a functional view of the adversarial relationships involved.  Uncertainty is bounded by a familiarity with those adversaries in time and space; motivation for behavior in those areas of interest, security, governance, and global dominance, among others would be matched with a known schema/model and limited set of motivations.  However, as suggested earlier, that conventional and symmetrical geopolitical landscape no longer exists. To meet the dramatically different transnational landscape where the actors are many and varied, and not persistent over time, the need for new and/or different analytical frames, the ability to work through the cognitive and emotional dissonance generated by contrary or even diametrically opposed belief systems, and the capability to “think” differently are paramount and absolutely essential. 

Initial attempts at making sense of people’s cultural behavior falls prey to our existing  schemas, models and frames , [31] especially as  those behaviors and thinking  are likely radically different than one’s own cultural beliefs and values.  Incoming information can be refitted into an appropriate model/frame forming a perspective that lies closer and truer to the cultural reality of someone from another culture.[32]  People react to culturally different information by trying to find an existing model (arguably at that point biased both structurally and cognitively) that allows them to consider meaning.  If people notice data/behavior that does not fit their existing frame, that foreign input or stimuli ‘surprise’ will initiate sensemaking to modify or replace the frame with one more appropriate.[33]   Rasmussen et al (2009) posits a model of cultural sensemaking that includes steps of data seeking, applying data/information to cultural expectations, and if necessary modifying the expectations based on observed data, experience, or new information of those from different cultures.[34]  The need for cultural sensemaking becomes apparent when the frame/model replacement or necessary modification assumes that another’s mental state (series of models) reflects similar cognitive processes as the intelligence professional or others involved in understanding and evaluating the problem set.  Without knowing the meaning of, or having the appropriate context to cultural behavior through background knowledge, ascertaining covert or hidden meaning and having an understanding of unwritten rules that guide sociocultural behavior, an incomplete perspective will be produced. 

Fishbein and Treverton in a Kent Center 2004 publication[35] reported on workshops held in 2003 that explored alternative analysis for transnational threats.  Their report suggested that a more encompassing cognitive approach, less a suite of “tools” and more an organization process, centered around mindfulness is obliged to the analyst to engage and is most effective in a organizationally-supported collaborative effort.  Their survey of types of thinking strategies included some of those already discussed, such as sensemaking and other cognitive processes that are part of mindfulness.  Perspective-taking is another cognitive strategy that can aid in constructing or reconstructing how cultural groups “understand” their own reality.

Perspective-taking is critical to cultural sensemaking and is the ability to take alternative perspectives and be able to “see or even feel” others’ behavior in the frame of that person’s culture (belief and value system).  Perspective-taking requires insight into others’ thoughts, motivations, and concerns – “…ultimately insight into the mental model and factors that shape and affects decision making processes within specific contexts.”[36]   It is suggested that cultural general knowledge of the underlying concepts and principles of culture as a process is important to deciphering other people’s behavior.  Regional (culture-specific) knowledge: context/location-specific information about the cultural dimensions, domains, and components of a cultural group, kin group, tribe, ethnicity (even commonly-shared behavior across a region) is useful to promote a more accurate and valid perspective.   Perspective-taking is a skill-based competency and can be trained; however the need to produce “valid” perspectives that align to what others of a different culture experience is also based on enablers, such as suspension of judgment and empathy that can enhance the intelligence officer’s ability to produce a valid perspective.  These enablers can be tied to personality factors and may be trainable, however, it is also suggested that too much perspective-taking may also become a liability to final analysis,  while employing a variety of cognitive strategies already mentioned can help produce a useable and more valid perspective. Research indicates that training and the development of and application of tools, such as cultural priming, can be an effective way to promote perspective-taking.[37]

Cultural Priming considers both sensemaking and perspective-taking; it is currently being researched/studied by the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL).  This research project has application to successful cross-cultural relationship building, effective cross-cultural collection skill development, and discerning and estimating future behavior of foreign cultures.  Cultural priming theory posits that psychological stimuli or conditions can change an individual’s response to a later stimulus.  Tools (cognitive primes or conditions) can be developed to prepare or “prime” an individual to think, act, or behave in a way consistent with expectations of an individual from another culture or cultural group. [38]   Essentially these primes can aid in the process of reframing context to cultural sensemaking and also facilitate perspective-taking.  Skillfully applying cultural priming cues, intelligence officers may better estimate the effects of actions and events of others from a different culture – getting the assessment “left of bang”. 

Preliminary research of CASL’s cultural priming project implicates the “individualist/collectivist”[39] dichotomy that is usually applied to characterize western and non-western societies may be more nuanced than what has been commonly accepted in the literature.  Suggesting that the “collectivist” category may engender different cultural perspectives, researchers proposed a multidimensional cultural frame that is based around the arrangement of social relationships.   Determined through validation of these frames and supported by neuroimaging tests on four different cultural groups, a prime is proposed for development in the next phase to be used by analysts to adopt the appropriate collectivist mindset in the workplace  “…to better predict the behavior of others in foreign cultures, such as East and South Asian cultures. Adopting these mindsets may have positive applications across all cultures and peoples different than the Western European culture and perspective of today’s intelligence officers.”[40]

In summary, it is the suggestion of this paper that research and preliminary application of that research in promoting alternative analysis has not adequately considered the impact of cultural orientation of the analyst and those from foreign cultural groups on understanding behavior of the other due to biases, nor in response to this, the development of competencies (knowledge and skills) and enabling traits/states to help mitigate these biases.  A recent 2012 publication suggests that specific analytical methods such as red-teaming may still court resistance from the organization, may fall prey to the traditional process, and impacts the comfort level of the individual intelligence professional toward accepting, even embracing non-traditional skill sets; ”…the issue of new skill demands occurs when a Red Team is simply not able to mentally get inside of the enemy’s decision cycle or darker mindsets and have not achieved the ability to understand how a particular adversary thinks.”[41] The value of promoting sensemaking and perspective-taking to divergent thinking methods that include brainstorming, journaling, free writing and visual mapping of relationships of ideas is apparent – alternative ways of thinking are culturally-bound, both as evidenced by the more traditional intelligence process but also by the dependency on the veracity of perspective one  has of others from a foreign culture.  As suggested here, alternative analytical strategies can aid in this process; however recent research and development into cross-cultural competence and products like priming get at the heart of mitigating biases that can be resistant or unconscious due to a host of variables, both cultural and cognitive.   This effort is a first attempt to align acknowledged cross-cultural skill-based competencies to the intelligence mission.

Augmenting the Cross-Cultural Competence Baseline and the Intelligence Process

“A new concept should seek to explain how populations understand their reality, why they choose either to support or resist their governments, how they organize themselves socially and politically, and why and how their beliefs transform over time.”

LTG Michael Flynn[42]

This paper has explored cross-cultural competence as a means to promote more effective analysis of a changing intelligence mission that needs to consider more non-state actors and transnational threats.  A recent 2013 publication, Operational Relevance of Behavioral and Social Science to DoD Missions[43], produced a survey of applications that utilizes social science knowledge, tools and methods that included stability, shaping, and counter-terrorism operations as well as benefit to planning and assessment. Augmenting skill-based competencies such as sensemaking and perspective-taking is the need to apply both foundational understanding of cultural domains and how cultural systems operate, and the contextualized expression of these universal features to time, space and place.  Successful sensemaking and perspective taking demand the knowledge of how culture (and region) influences behavior.[44]

Sociocultural analysis (SCA) is an array of methods used to discern meaning of behavior through data that traditionally was undervalued and did not play a major role in traditional analysis.  Applying SCA methods can help extract data that can prove useful in determining and deciding on future courses of action as a result of a problem solving process used for decision making.  Recent publications highlight the importance of the application of methods and of the collected data to the analytic process to more reliably and effectively “…understand, predict, track and prevent social trends detrimental to US interests.” [45]  In several publications, Flynn and various authors have promoted SCA as critical to [46] current intelligence efforts, “…the Intelligence Community must develop and mature innovative capabilities that address the challenges of this new threat environment to provide nonlinear, holistic intelligence to decision makers and advance its analytic tradecraft.”[47]  Current efforts across the IC are exploring how to integrate SCA (and essentials of human geography) into existing analysis; the attendant essential competencies are being explicated and learning programs considered.   Johnson and Berrett propose the construction of “papers” they call cultural topographies that can be used to map a selection of critical cultural factors (CCF) to cultures that can act as a foundation document to better enhance analysis.[48]  Not surprising, the process and content of the topographies are similar to those posed in an earlier work by Puls on sociocultural analysis.[49]

Engaging the Cross-Cultural Competence Baseline

In the end, predicting or estimating an actor’s (or actors’) behavior in a known or uncertain environment depends on engaging in a complex process that includes a variety of cognitive strategies that must mitigate the effects of the intelligence professional’s lens that is shaped by a variety of cultural and personality factors. These effects are manifested as an expression of thin-slicing that produce an array and to varying degrees biases.  Adding to limitations imposed by these human predispositions (and limitations of the intelligence officer) is the restrictive conventional intelligence process that is designed to drive toward rational and limited outcomes, and by its design often precludes divergent thinking strategies much less an analytic environment that can effectively manage  the complexity and uncertainty of transnational actors and events.  A lack of understanding  the nature of culture and its universal components, as well as  the contextualization of that knowledge to time, space and place also acts to impact analysis is relevant to the contemporary reality of transnational threats.

Cross-cultural competence and cultural sensemaking, when coupled with perspective-taking and alternate cognitive strategies such as alternative analysis, and when guided by methods like divergent thinking promote possible options or courses of action that reflect the greater,  current, and more convoluted security environment evident across today’s  spectrum of national strategic challenges.   In the case of the intelligence officer, initiating cultural sensemaking “left” of surprise can only produce a more accurate representation of behavior from the perspective of the cultural other. 

An example of the dangers of not applying the basic tenets of cross-cultural competence (cultural learning, sensemaking and perspective-taking) and alternative methods of analysis is a recent war-gaming exercise. US military (and associated USG organizations) recently war-gamed Iranian/Israeli options over potential conflict. The results of that exercise indicated a prevalence of particular mindset (overrepresented in military planners and analysts) and perspectives that may fall outside the realm of predictability that could have been mitigated through cultural sensemaking and perspective-taking.  For instance, a conflict between the two actors should have included the perspective that conflict would be   “… between two foreign nations, with their own domestic agendas, cultural traditions and military methods.  If Israel attacks Iran, it may employ technologies and tactics that the U.S. hasn’t thought of.”[50]  Utilization of role-players in this war-gaming exercise with little chance to replicate either Iranian or Israeli potential behavior also worked against cultural sensemaking and perspective taking,   “…the Israeli and Iranian teams were played by American experts on those nations, some of whom had worked in the U.S. government. One has to wonder if these simulations implicitly reflect American views and practices of how to resolve the conflict.” Not too consequently was the aberrant development of unlikely outcomes and inaccurate assessments –an exercise in futility using the wrong, or incomplete techniques and methods of critical thinking and alternative analysis relevant to the war-game.  In this case, “left of bang” was certainly missed, and battle sights needed to be recalibrated and specified.

A Note on Cross-Cultural Competence and the Intelligence Process

Our senior leaders – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States – are not getting the information to make decisions with….We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political decision makers. 

GEN Stanley McChrystal (RET)[52]

Thus far, cross-cultural competence has been explored and applied generally to the intelligence process.  This section briefly outlines where to apply cross-cultural competence (and what competencies) along the intelligence process.  The intelligence process consists of a more or less linear path from requirements to collection to analysis.  The analytic intelligence process must initiate with collection of data either from six feet away through on-the-ground collection, or up to 6000 miles away, through the use of technical and human sensors and platforms and of open-source, and other data sets by analysts.  The current emphasis on partnership building activities, the need to know transnational threats, the array of actors considered as integral to future events, and the emphasis on getting to and creating legitimate “left of bang” assessments, all require more extensive and coordinated efforts to facilitate collection at the source.  Essential to successful collection are more advanced cross-cultural strategies and skills that feature interactional strategies that promote effective navigation in culturally complex situations (cross-cultural communication skills that must include language proficiency or skills applied to working with interpreters and translators).  These skills promote the necessary relationship-building that must be initiated and sustained over time and include sensemaking and perspective-taking abilities that prepare the collectors to work in these complex areas.   Additionally, employing the appropriate qualitative data collection methods is critical to the collection process.   The importance of this initial point of entry into the intelligence process cannot be overstated.  At this entry point, data gets collated and forwarded on by the collector, all further and resultant data needs and analysis is dependent on this initial collection.   Culture-general and regional knowledge are also critical enablers to the collectors and to the collection success.  Flynn et al 2010[53] discusses at length the need for a more nuanced and ground truthed collection of intelligence data in Afghanistan.  This emphasis applies to collection in general – the shifting and dynamic landscape of actors demands a more intimate approach. 

As data travels along the intelligence highway, the need to concentrate on the interactional strategies and skills for the professionals who attend to the meaning of data diminish, however the cognitive load on interpretation and analysis will increase and thus dependency on cross- cultural competence will increase.  Interpretation of data has always been an issue in social science fieldwork, cultural sensemaking and perspective-taking will help mitigate incomplete and erroneous interpretation.  There may be no standardized fusion points of field data; in conflict areas intelligence does pass through a clearinghouse. For instance, while the role of attachés may fill that stage (or data is passed directly stateside), at each point along the highway, distance in terms of relationships (nodes of interaction) or geography (or both) increases and preliminary analysis becomes data to be utilized in continued analysis farther along the road.   Applying a range of critical and divergent thinking, traditional and alternate analysis, and incorporating cultural sensemaking and perspective-taking into the intelligence process after collection, is necessary to promote analyses that can be utilized in both tactical and strategic approaches.  It is also recognized that elements of SCA are pertinent to this intelligence pipeline and are to be considered at collection, at initial analysis, and at advanced analysis.  


All of this requires investment  [and] …a belief that part of providing security in this turbulent 21st century will mean we must 'know the world' so much better than we do today.

ADM James G. Stavridis[54]

Cross-cultural competence offers knowledge, skills, and abilities to promote effective navigation of culturally complex situations.  Specific to the IC and DoD, cross-cultural competence can facilitate effective requirement determination, data collection and analysis, build effective interpersonal relationships with indigenous populations and/or non-traditional/non-state actors and discern the intent of their leaders, aid partnership building with an array of government and non-governmental organizations to assist in promoting foreign country national security.  While sociocultural analysis represents a collection of methods to enhance and discern the meaning of sociocultural knowledge, cross-cultural competence represents a collection of skills that are necessary to increase the effectiveness of thinking/analytical methods.  As has been suggested, cultural sensemaking and perspective-taking will aid in neutralizing cognitive and cultural bias that often influences the intelligence cycle –from requirements to collection and through analysis-- outcomes and products.  Cultural priming represents one approach to mitigating bias through sensemaking and perspective-taking.  A comprehensive cross-cultural competence   learning program should be considered across the IC to enhance and better facilitate the nation’s intelligence mission.

[1] Johnston, R (2005).  Analytical Culture in the US Intelligence Community.  Center for the Study of Intelligence: 76

[2] Beliefs can be considered shared core truths of a society that may or may not be experienced (or even physically or empirically substantiated) by any or all but compel behavior and action.  This set of beliefs forms a worldview that acts to frame one’s universe. Values are preferred meaningful qualities of a society that act to bind those together that hold these values.  Core beliefs are visible through patterns of behavior that are reflected in universal domains (religion/ideology, kinship/family, subsistence, heritage) and in cultural systems (affiliation/identity, exchange, governance) and the integration of domains and systems,

[3] Flynn, M.T., Sisco, J and D.C. Ellis.  (2012).  “Left of Bang: The Value of Sociocultural Analysis in Today’s Environment,” PRISM 3 (4): 14

[4] McRaven, (Admiral) William H.  2012.  “Posture Statement of Admiral William H. McRaven, USN, Commander, United States Special Operations Command Before the 112th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee,” March 6, 2012, (accessed 12/04/2012).

[5] Flynn et al (2012):19

[6] Flynn et al (2012), p. 14.

[7] See Puls, M (2011).  Sociocultural ISR for Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations, an unpublished manuscript and Flynn et al for discussion of sociocultural analysis, see Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense Intelligence Counterinsurgency (COIN) Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations Report, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. (February, 2011) for discussion of the existing shortfalls in sociocultural analysis in the DoD.  See Sands, R. (2013).  Reading Cultural Heritage: What Can Heritage Tell Us about the Behavior of the Cultural “Other”?  in Strong, B.E., Brooks, L., Ramsden Zbylut, M, & Roan, L, Sociocultural systems: The next step in Army cultural capability. (ARI  Research Product 2012-XX). Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences for a discussion of “reading” cultural heritage as a means to discern behavior.

[8] Atran, S.  (2010).  Talking to the Enemy: Religion, brotherhood and the (un) making of terrorists.  NY, NY: HarperCollins.

[9] Johnson, J.L and Berrett, M.T.  (2011). “Cultural Topography: A New Research Tool for Intelligence Analyst.”  Studies in Intelligence 55 (2):2

[10] Ambady, Nalini & Rosenthal, Robert (1992). "Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis," Psychological Bulletin, 111, 256–274; Ambady, N., Bernieri, F.J., & Richeson, J.A. (2000). “Toward a histology of social behavior: Judgmental accuracy from thin slices of the behavioral stream,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 32, pp. 201–271); Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company

[11]   See Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An easy on the organization of experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  Thin slicing and framing are not at all competing theories, thin slicing is presented more through a biological perspective and framing is explained in social contexts.  For this paper, we will consider that humans have a social/psychological and biological capacity to build a series of cultural models through time and experience that operate to “frame” and interpret data/information that is taken in.

[12] Scholz on Leadership (July 26, 2012),  (accessed 9/25/2012).

[13] See Garland, E (2012). “Peak Intel: How so called strategic intelligence actually makes us dumber,” The Atlantic Magazine (Apr 5 2012), (accessed 1/2/2013) and Haddick, R. (2012).  “Strategic Error: When the big picture misses the point,” Foreign Policy (Aug 24 2012), (accessed 1/2/2013)

[14] Johnston, R (2005).  Analytical Culture in the US Intelligence Community.  Center for the Study of Intelligence: 75

[15] Rasmussen, L. J., Sieck, W. R., Grome, A. P., and Simpkins, B. (2009).  Cultural Sensemaking: Competence Assessment and Learning Objectives for New Leaders in the Marine Corps.  (Technical Report CTTSO W91CRB-09-C-0028b).  Fairborn, OH: Klein Associates Division of ARA, p. 3.

[16] Johnston 2005:76

[17] Johnson, J.L and Berrett, M.T.  (2011). “Cultural Topography: A New Research Tool for Intelligence Analyst.”  Studies in Intelligence 55 (2):3.

[18] Fishbein, W and Treverton, G (2004).  Rethinking “Alternative Analysis” to Address Transnational Threats, Occassional Papers: Volume 3 (2), Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysts, p. 1,

[19] Ibid

[20] To wit, Intelligence Community Directive #203 (2007) states that analytic products should “incorporate alternative analysis where appropriate” and defines alternative analysis as a “rigorous, systematic analytic consideration of differing viewpoints, explanations for observed or reported phenomena, or possible future outcomes (Intelligence Community Directive #203: Analytic Standards, 2007: p. 3 and Annex

[21] “Red teaming and Alternative Analysis”, Red Teaming Journal ,

[22] Baer, J. (2011).  Most of what you know about divergent thinking is wrong.  The Creativity Post (!5 December), (

[23] Fishbein and Treverton (2004), p.2.

[24] Rasmussen, L. J., and Sieck, W. R. (2012). “7 mental habits of highly effective warrior diplomats: Strategies for developing and practicing cross-cultural expertise in the military,”  Military Review, March-April, p. 72.

[25] See Sands, R Greene (2013).  “A Baseline Cross-cultural Competency: The Decisive Edge for a 21st Century Military.”  Society for Applied Anthropology News, (1 February),  (2012).  “An essay on cultural relativism and the convergence of ethnography and cross-cultural competence.” Military Intelligence Review Bulletin (January/March), 2012: 13-18.

[26] See Department of Defense Instruction (DODI) 5160.70 and Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 5160.41E.  There is now a body of research and literature that dates from 2007 that attests to the important of developing cross-cultural competence across the Department of Defense. A sample of this literature includes: Abbe, A. (2008, January). Building cultural capability for full-spectrum operations. ARI Study Report No. 2008-04. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences;   Abbe, A., Gulick, L. M. V., & Herman, J. L. (2008, October).  Cross-cultural competence in Army leaders: A conceptual and empirical foundation. ARI Study Report No. 2008-01. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences,  Rentsch, J.R., Gunderson, A., Goodwin, G.F., & Abbe, A. (2007, November).  Conceptualizing Multicultural Perspective Taking Skills. ARI Technical Report No. 1216. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Rasmussen, L. J., and Sieck, W. R. (2012). “7 mental habits of highly effective warrior diplomats: Strategies for developing and practicing cross-cultural expertise in the military,”  Military Review, March-April, pps 71-80.

[27] (Klein, Phillips, Rall, & Peluso in Rasmussen et al 2009)

[28] Moore, D. (2011) Sensemaking: A Structure for an Intelligence Revolution.  Washington, DC: National Defense Intelligence College, p.8

[29] Weik, K in Moore (2005):8

[30] Fisbbein and Treverton (2004)

[31] Rasmussen et al 2009

[32] Utilizing Klein, Phillips, Rall, & Peluso data/frame model, reframing is conceptually a process which modifies the existing schemas to allow alternative perspectives/meaning of people from different cultures. 

[33] Rasmussen et al (2009)

[34][34] Ibid

[35] Fishbein and Treverton (2004)

[36] Rasmussen et al 2009:4

[37] Klein, G., Phillips, J. K., Rall, E., & Peluso, D. A. (2007). A data/frame theory of sensemaking. In R. R.

Hoffman (Ed.), Expertise out of context: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on

Naturalistic Decision Making. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc; Rasmussen, L. J., and Sieck, W. R. (2012). “7 mental habits of highly effective warrior diplomats: Strategies for developing and practicing cross-cultural expertise in the military.”  Military Review, March-April, pps 71-80;  Rentsch, J.R., Gunderson, A., Goodwin, G.F., & Abbe, A. (2007, November). Conceptualizing Multicultural Perspective Taking Skills. ARI Technical Report No. 1216. Arlington, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences

[38] See Dien, J, Block, S and S. Glazer (2011).  “Cultural Priming: Adopting the adversary’s mindset to improve analysis.” Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL).  See CASL for a survey of existing literature on cultural priming.

[39] See Hamedani, N, Purvis, T, Glazer, S. and J. Dien (2012). “Ways of manifesting collectivism: An analysis of Iranian and African cultures.” Center for Advanced Study of Language; Fiske, A. P. (2002). “Using individualism and collectivism to compare cultures - A critique of the validity and measurement of the constructs: Comment on Oyserman et al.” (2002). [Editorial Material]. Psychological Bulletin, 128(1), 78-88, and (2004) “Relational models theory 2.0,”. In N. Haslam (Ed.), Relational models theory: A contemporary overview

(pp. 3-25). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

[40] See

[41] Swanson, S.  (2012).  Enhancing Red Team Performance: Driving Measureable Value and Quality Outcomes with Process Improvements.  Small Wars Journal (5 October);

[42] See Flynn et al (2012): 14

[43] This March 2013 publication is a brief proceeding of the 2012 “A World in Transformation: Challenges and Opportunities” Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) Conference.

[44] Cultural knowledge is the basis by which the behavior of a defined group of people is better and more accurately understood.  Human behavior is predicated on and reflected in a system of shared beliefs and values, and is expressed through domains of activities.  Beliefs are ideas that are held to be true by a society; values are shared beliefs that are meaningful judgments of personal attributes and reinforcement of qualities important to group members. These beliefs, values and behaviors are learned and shared across generations.  Culture is more or less an organizing concept or process that generates and sustains human behavior.  Cultural knowledge helps to understand the ‘contextual’ why behind a group’s behavior by discerning the formation and sustainment of those beliefs and values. Cultural knowledge provides the basic understanding of the common aspects and domains based on shared meaning of behavior that offers broadly-applicable general principles and helps serve as a framework to establish a group’s identity.  Included in cultural knowledge is the understanding of how cultural systems are integrated and how those systems operate across time and space.   Regional knowledge includes the measurable or observed elements (context) of a geographically defined region or nation-state that enables, constrains, or impacts the range of human behavior.  The expression of regional knowledge (i.e., governance and economic systems, belief systems, language, technology, systems of affiliation, cultural heritage, development, and security) considers a range of categories: a nation-state, collection of nation-states, non-state actors, or cultural and ethnic groups—the boundaries around a region can be determined by mission or focus.  

[45] Puls, M. (2011).  Sociocultural ISR for Counterinsurgency and Stability Operations.  (unpublished manuscript)

[46] Flynn et al (2012); Flynn, MG Michael T.,CPT Matt Pottinger (USMC, ret.), and Paul D. Batchelor. (2010). Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.  Center for a New American Security; Puls (2011); Defense Science Board Task Force on Defense Intelligence: Counterinsurgency (COIN) Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operations Report. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

[47] Flynn et al (2012): 21.

[48] Johnson and Berret (2011)

[49] Puls (2011)

[50] Peck, M (2012).  “Can we simulate non-American wars?” Defense News (Oct 19, 2012), 1/3/2013)

[52] Flynn et al (2010): 4

[53] Ibid.

[54] Stavrides, J.  (2012).  “To Know the World.  United States European Command,


About the Author(s)

Tom Haines is the Senior Language Authority for the Defense Intelligence Agency; he leads and directs the Agency’s language, regional expertise and culture programs.  Mr. Haines is a former Foreign Area  Officer  (Russia/Eurasia) having served in Bosnia-Herzegovina as liaison officer to the Russian Brigade during Implementation Force (IFOR), the Joint Commission Support Directorate –Moscow, and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

Robert R. Greene Sands, PhD, is one of the foremost experts in cross-cultural competence (3C) and culture-general in the DoD and has worked closely with several DoD organizations to develop and deliver innovative blended learning programs in culture and language.  Several iterations of his courseware have been utilized by different Services, Special Operations Forces, US Army, US Air Force, US Marines, and Foreign Area Officers, among others. Sands developed the first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in cross-cultural competence, Operational Culture: Thinking Differently about Behavior in the Human Domain.

Anthropologist Sands is currently CEO of LanguaCulture, LLC and adjunct professor at Norwich University.  His prior experience includes positions at Air University and Air Force Culture and Language Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Language at Norwich University and adjunct professor in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies Program.  Sands’s research and writing on the various aspects of culture and language is represented in seven books (with one in press), numerous journal and book chapters.  He is also a preeminent speaker and lecturer and is often delivering addresses to various organizations and learning institutions on his research and experience, to include TEDx and other television and video appearances.  His most recent book published by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) featured a re-envisioning of the Special Forces language and culture learning program, Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain.  Sands founded and is co-editor of the Journal for Culture, Language and International Security.  Dr. Sands received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois.