‘Proper planning prevents poor performance’. An oft-used adage among executives, military planners, and sports elites alike. Even if we don’t like to do it, or have limited time to do it, we know that planning helps to: clarify our objectives; optimise resource allocation; better understand risk; improve time management; and enhance decision making.
By investing time and effort into planning early, we achieve better outcomes and increase the likelihood of success. Planning in the collection, analysis, and distribution of open-source intelligence is no different. And it’s critical if we want our intelligence to have a meaningful impact.
In this blog, I’ll share the 5-step process I use to plan better and bring more clarity and direction to my intelligence efforts. And hopefully avoid an old intelligence occupational hazard, satirically referred to by a colleague of mine as, ChaosINT.
1. Understand your intelligence problem
Before you go getting about your research and collection, it’s always good to learn about, define and refine the problem you’re working on. To do this, you might need to do a little (or a lot!) of reading to gather relevant information and gain insights into the subject matter. This should include routine research about your topic (internet, books, journals etc.) but also include reviewing any previous intelligence products available, to leverage existing knowledge and identify areas for further research or improvement.
You will also probably need to engage regularly with decision makers, and customers or clients, to understand their specific needs and align your efforts with their strategic objectives. In some cases, you might even have to assist those decision makers to understand their strategic objectives to then inform your own intelligence efforts better.
Don't forget to collaborate with team members, management, and other subject matter experts. Discussion about your issue, and topics adjacent to your issue, will ensure you get a comprehensive understanding of the problem set and incorporate diverse perspectives in your thinking. I personally like to engage external authorities to challenge my own thinking. Dissecting a complex topic, and learning about all its component parts, will help you better define the problem you're working on. This is important because before you move on from this step, it is imperative to clarify and confirm your initial intelligence requirements, and establish a clear roadmap for your subsequent research, collection and analysis.
2. Build yourself an OSINT ‘toolkit'.
To progress your research and analysis, you'll need to identify and learn about, the tools and working aids available to you to assist you on that journey. Specifically, you'll need to be able to make a judgment about their capabilities and limitations and determine which tools are best applied to fix which problems. For example, it might be as simple as identifying that you’ll need to use internet search tools for your collection – but which ones? What’s good? What’s affordable? Which hides your footprint and protects your privacy? What applications will you use to collate and record information? Does your intelligence problem require some advance collection or analytical software to help you automate, or make sense of large amounts of complex data? If you'll likely be collecting and analysing imagery then you might need professional imagery software to assist with that. If you're supporting criminal investigations, then you might require access to the Dark Web? If you do, you'll need to consider if your people are technically trained in how to operate safely and effectively on the Dark Web.
Some of these might seem simple, but if you don’t take the time to consciously think and plan which ‘tools’ you will need to take on your intelligence journey, then you might find yourself wasting valuable time and resources later.
Which leads me to do a quick plug for NexusXplore! NexusXplore enables advanced open source searching through a single, easy-use interface. lt is designed for OSINT practitioners by OSINT practitioners. It saves time collecting information and gives you more time for planning and analysis.
3. Organise your thinking.
At this point you will start to have a good appreciation for the problem you're tackling, and beginning to understand the relationships between the various complex elements. You should also have an idea of what tools you are going to need to apply to that problem - not just for your collection but also to aide your analysis. So, now it's time to consciously organise your thinking and create a system to ensure you best direct your intelligence efforts, and set yourself up well to encourage logical and productive analysis. Personally, I like to kick things off with a brainstorm where I break a problem down into component parts (preferably using a white board and coloured markers to help get my brain firing, but you can choose any method that works best for you). It can also be a useful way to identify sub themes to cover and research, and start thinking about key words to assist with your data retrieval. You will also find that this is the time to start identifying and formulating your thinking about potential sources of information and how you'll go about evaluating and verifying these (for more on this, see my blog: Verifying Information Online). Do you have a lot of sources and information? If yes, how will you prioritise and manage this? If you don't have much information, how will you go about identifying and expanding your collection opportunities? Do you have the technical tools and abilities you need to maximise your collection?
Finally, it's at this point that developing a simple information management system becomes important so that you can be compliant with any record keeping and legal requirements, but also so I can make data retrieval easy for yourself and anyone you're collaborating with. I know from experience that if I spend a little time on these organisational tasks now, I can reduce stress and save time later when I will be focussed on preparing my intelligence.
4. Take action.
Now it's time to do something that supports all the thinking you did in Step 3. Perhaps the issue you're working on requires you to populate a personalities database to help with some link analysis, or draft a timeline of terrorist or cyber events. Perhaps you need to log aircraft or ship movements, confirm a military order of battle, or map a supply chain. You may even need to employ a simple but formal structured analytical technique to help you and your team unpack a complex issue (tune in for more on structured analytical techniques in my future blogs).
My trusty go-to is to draft a simple collection plan that identifies, categorises and prioritises my potential sources and information. It doesn't have to be an exhaustive plan but enough to get you started and exist as a record for others on where you're at and where you're going. There are plenty of collection plans templates available online so it can be worth taking the time to design something that works for you and your organisation.
There is a myriad of ‘tools’ available for OSINT practitioners and, if you can, I always recommend choosing one that:
best suits the problem you're working;
helps inform and frame your thinking about your key intelligence issues; and
you enjoy using! After all, we're going to think better and faster if we enjoy what we're doing.
But remember, while tools are essential to support your ongoing collection and analysis, don't overuse them or get lost in them. Only spend time using the ones that best apply to your problem, and will help you focus and clarify your ongoing requirements.
5. Rinse and repeat.
This one speaks for itself, but it's often the step that's forgotten because we are all too ready to jump into our targeted collection activities. As OSINT practitioners, we must take the time to review our work with integrity, and in this case that means reviewing the previous 4 steps in your planning process vis a vis your intelligence problem. Ask yourself if you have been as thorough as you can be, with the time that you have available. Have you put more effort into some steps than others? Why? Do you enjoy some steps more than others and maybe overlooked something important? Are some steps more complex than others and need more time to evaluate properly? Are some steps more resource intensive than others? Do you have knowledge gaps that you still need to fill?
Be honest with yourself and others. At the end of the 5-steps, do you (and anyone who needs to) have a good understanding of your problem and clearly define your intelligence requirements? Or is it possible you may need to do some more reading and planning?
Time well spent and all that...
If you’re still reading, you'll understandably be thinking that planning is not everyone’s forte or your work requirements don’t permit time for planning. I mean, isn’t that a common catch cry? Do more with less and do it quickly! Planning certainly gets a bad rap from those who see it as the enemy of creativity or action. But I would – somewhat provocatively – posit, that that is just an excuse proliferated by those who are mentally lazy, disorganised, and ill-disciplined to avoid a hard and potentially less ‘sexy' part of our job. And we as OSINT practitioners are never lazy, disorganised or ill-disciplined – or at least we should work hard not to be! There is always time to plan, even if we plan quickly. And some planning is better than no planning. Most times we'll come to find that the time we do spend planning is recouped through more focussed collection and analysis, which ultimately improves our judgements, insights and support to decision making.
So, next time you’re working an intelligence problem, and find yourself descending into the dark abyss of ChaosINT, give a thought to my 5-step plan for better planning!