March 2012 | Vol. 4 Issue 3                   In Collaboration with the Frost & Sullivan Institute


Let’s Kill the Intelligence Cycle… Or Not

  By Bonnie Hohhof
Director of Competitive Research

The intelligence cycle is a depiction of how the intelligence process works, and dates back to WWII. Does it still work in the 21st century?

One of my favorite intelligence blogs, Sources and Methods, is written by Kristan Wheaton, a professor at Mercyhurst College. Last year he ran an 11-part series on the utility and appropriateness of the traditional intelligence cycle in the current environment, based on his research on the intelligence process. Kris’ thesis is that the current depiction of the “intelligence cycle” is fatally flawed.

Not everyone agreed with him, but it was a lively discussion. Here are several points worth considering:

Why care about the intelligence cycle?

Many (if not most) of the intelligence functions in companies have built their personnel, processes and budgets around the intelligence cycle concept. If the intelligence cycle is flawed (either by design or interpretation), this results in the misallocation of funds and requires work-around solutions. It can also result in a mismatch between skills and competencies needed vs. skills and competencies acquired.

What is the intelligence cycle?

Virtually every organization or company that has even a modest intelligence capability has and uses a picture similar to this one:

Indeed, many private sector practitioners have built much of their marketing campaigns touting the benefits of this cycle. This traditional image is so pervasive that it has become the generally accepted vision of how intelligence professionals perform the functions of intelligence, although the details can vary dramatically.

Which intelligence cycle?

Some critics of the intelligence cycle say that what appears to be a theoretical monolith is actually open to a wide variety of interpretations, resulting in a series of intelligence cycles, each substantively different from the rest.

A recent Google image search on “intelligence cycle” retrieved hundreds of visual variations of the cycle.

How does it match reality?

Many authors have claimed that the intelligence cycle, as generally described, does not reflect the reality of how intelligence is actually done. The simplicity of the cycle, to these critics, is both seductive and deceiving. According to Wheaton “there is virtually no knowledgeable practitioner or theorist who claims that the cycle reflects, in any substantial way or in any sub-discipline, the reality of how intelligence is actually done.”

While personally I wouldn’t go that far, I do agree that the intelligence cycle is linear and intelligence, as practiced, is not. Each element of the “cycle” interacts with the others. Collectors and analysts will inevitably go back and forth as the analysts attempt to add depth to their reporting and as the collector develops new collection capabilities. Decision-makers often remain involved throughout the process, seeking status reports and perhaps even modifying the requirement as new information or preliminary analysis becomes available.

And here’s my favorite: a depiction of the sense-making loop for intelligence analysis by Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card of PARC

While I’ve just touched on some of Wheaton’s summations and analysis of the intelligence cycle, his full posts – and the comments connected to them – do provide a different approach to modeling the “intelligence cycle.” It’s well worth reading through them here.

About the Author

Bonnie Hohhof is the director of competitive research for SCIP and the editor of Competitive Intelligence Magazine. She has over 25 years of corporate experience, including the Corporate Strategy Offices of both Ameritech and Motorola. A charter member of SCIP, she also served on their Board of Directors, founded and edited the Competitive Intelligence Review and received the SCIP Fellow and Meritorious awards. She has a BA in Political Science from Northwestern University, an MS in Information Sciences from Dominican University and an MBA from Roosevelt University. She can be reached at, or 630-469-0732.


Watch for more information on:
SCIP 2012 Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil
4-6 October 2012

SCIP 2012 Asia Pacific Summit
23-24 October 2012

* Dates and location are subject to change.

More SCIP Hosted Events
More Frost & Sullivan Hosted Events

SCIP-CIP Certification Courses
June 11-22, 2012
Boston, MA


Going Beyond Google: CI from
the Deep Web

April 3, 2012
SCIP Silicon Valley Chapter

CI and Business Analysis Pragmatic Approaches for Limited Budget Research, Intelligence and Analysis Positions
April 12, 2012
SCIP Wisconsin Chapter
Share your professional views and experience in the field of Competitive Intelligence. See upcoming themes slated for the monthly SCIP Insight eBulletin below; choose a topic and submit an article:
 Apr  CI Professional Growth
 May  SCIP 2012 Conference Recap
 Jun  Competitive Environment
Email Frank Smith for more
information and to contribute.
Frost and Sullivan
SCIP LinkedIn Group
CI News
Job Board
 Highlights from past issues
 of SCIP's quarterly publication
Coping Strategies for Over-Burdened Analysts (Rothwell)
Win/Loss Reviews: Leveraging Sales Knowledge into Actionable Intelligence (Marcet)
Integrating Scenario Analysis and Quality Function Deployment in Competitive Intelligence (Velásquez and Salvador)
Analyst Briefings
Frost and Sullivan
  The Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) merged with the non-profit Frost & Sullivan Institute in 2009. The partnership between Frost & Sullivan Institute and SCIP provides a powerful opportunity to enhance the benefits SCIP offers its members.  
Industry White Papers and eBroadcasts
 Now onDemand:
Using Win/Loss to Build Competitive Advantage
Using Competitive War-Gaming  to Improve New Product Launch
From Macro-to-Micro: Translating Mega Trends into Strategy
Using Early Warning Intelligence To Anticipate External Threats and Minimize Strategic Risk
Seven Secrets to Guarantee
CI Impact and Longevity eBroadcast
Staying Ahead of Information in a Digital Age eBroadcast
Frost and Sullivan
  Attending a live event? Reserve your complimentary, customized session with a Growth Strategy Consultant today! Ask questions and brainstorm with experts to evaluate and enhance your growth strategy. For more information, contact Megan Houliston at 1.877.GO.FROST or  
Frost and Sullivan
Event Calendar
Our Solutions
Growth Team Membership™
Chairman's Series On Growth
GIL Community Newsletter

© 2012 Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals