Analysis: Transactive Forgetfulness at the CIA

By Edward T. Palazzolo

Michael Scheuer visited Arizona State University on 11 October 2007 to talk with ASU faculty and students and to share his insights with the community in an open lecture series offered by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. Scheuer is the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Osama bin Laden Unit and is the bestselling author of Imperial Hubris and Through our Enemies’ Eyes. For those who have followed Scheuer’s interviews in recent years, it came as no surprise that, along with his insights, Scheuer shared some criticisms of the CIA and the United States’ role in the Middle East.

Scheuer has the ability to capture the public’s attention because his opinions are based on roughly 20 years of covert operations for the CIA, where he gained extensive expertise with regard to counter-terrorism, US public diplomacy, national security, and the world’s responses to US policies and actions. Given the length of his tenure with the CIA, he worked with presidents from both parties and took part in, or witnessed firsthand, much of the decision-making processes surrounding US counter-terrorism actions.

Scheuer’s time spent with the CIA revealed to him a critical flaw in their knowledge management: the CIA is an organization of generalists. While it may be helpful in some situations to have an organization comprised of people who know something about a lot of areas, Scheuer points out that the CIA is not such an organization. The Social Psychology and Communication theory of Transactive Memory helps explain why a Central Intelligence Agency of generalists hinders its objectives.

Principles

Recent research argues for the importance of strategically managing information in organizations. Some of the strategic properties include establishing common language, building a mental directory of who knows what inside the organization, and gaining domain-specific expertise in the domain you are best qualified to learn. These principles are based on Transactive Memory Theory (Hollingshead, 1998; Wegner, 1987).

Common language, also known as common ground (Clark, 1985), is the process of establishing a mutual team or organizational conception of the topics its members know. A common language is essential for understanding significant concepts between members (Clark, 1985) and for them tocommunicate effectively. Once a common ground is established, organizational members create mental directories of the knowledge they think others possess (Wegner, 1995). Members use their knowledge directories to identify resources for information sharing when needed (Larson & Christensen, 1993). Lastly, having invested the time to develop a common language and a mental directory, the members can each specialize in the knowledge domains they are best suited to learn. This distribution of expertise specialization reduces everyone’s cognitive load. Using this strategy places an organization is in its best position to gain, store, and use information and knowledge.

Analysis

With regard to the Central Intelligence Agency, Scheuer commented that agency employees typically spend approximately two years in a given position before moving on to the next assignment. This 2-year rotation system dates back to the Cold War era as a means to protect an agent from being compromised or from developing “real” relationships in the region and compromising the agency’s objectives. Each move leads to different assignments such that employees rarely have the opportunity to gain deep expertise in a specific region of the world or a specific culture. Scheuer noted that frequent mobility is the path toward promotion within the CIA. In contrast, those agents who spend their careers gaining in-depth knowledge in a single area are valued for their expertise but are passed over for promotion because they do not know enough about multiple areas.

Transactive Memory Theory reveals two problems with this process. First, what is needed in an information age is an organization of coordinated specialists; however, the CIA has become an agency of generalists resulting from frequent assignment changes. Second, the reward system for CIA agents conflicts with their needs to develop and manage extensive knowledge. Because the system has been designed to reward those who have moved around frequently within the organization, what you have at the top are people with a broad knowledge base, but who may not necessarily have specialized knowledge in any given area. By itself, having leaders with a broad knowledge base can prove to be quite valuable. The problem stems from not developing the in-depth expertise in lower-level positions. Thus, in times of need, an organization of generalists does not have the experts to turn to; rather, they must generate expertise on the fly.  

Scheuer argued that until we develop the same kind of in-depth expertise that we did against the Soviets, there is just no way to win against terrorists. The insight that Transactive Memory Theory offers is that, if the CIA wishes to have its employees become experts as opposed to generalists, then it needs to allow people to maintain their positions for longer periods. Also, it must develop a system that both supports and rewards the necessary activities for members to learn thoroughly the details of one domain.

If Scheuer is correct in his assessment of CIA practices, then it is not surprising that an organization of generalists has emerged, and that these generalists do not have the requisite depth of knowledge to wage a war on terror adequately. Transactive Memory Theory provides support for Scheuer’s arguments regarding a need for the CIA to change its knowledge management ways. The theory offers a solid framework for structuring an organization such that it continues to learn, increases the efficiency and effectiveness of its communication, remains flexible to handle new challenges, and improves performance.

Further Reading

  • Hollingshead, A. B. (1998). Distributed knowledge and transactive processes in decision-making groups. In M. A. Neale, E. A. Mannix & D. H. Gruenfeld (Eds.), Research on managing groups and teams (Vol. 1). Grennwich, CT: JAI Press.
  • Larson, J. R. J., & Christensen, C. (1993). Groups as problem-solving units: Toward a new meaning of social cognition. British Journal of Social Psychology, 32(1), 5-30.
  • Wegner, D. M. (1987). Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Theories of group behavior (pp. 185-208). New York: Springer-Verlag.