The need for actionable, insightful, and reliable intelligence has never been greater than it is today. In the private, public, and governmental sectors, fierce business competition, rising prevalence of security threats, and increasingly dynamic systems and processes have made intelligence gathering and analysis vital to success.
Since the need for reliable intelligence is vital in many different settings, the demand for skilled intelligence analysts is continuing to rise as businesses and governments seek to make sense of vast amounts of information generated each and every day.
But what does an intelligence analyst actually do? How do they gather, analyze, and interpret the information required of them in their work? Below, we explore the role and responsibilities of intelligence analysts, as well as the skills and education required of them, so that you can better determine whether or not it is the right career for you.
What is a Strategic Intelligence Analyst?
Strategic intelligence is information that is collected and analyzed in order to inform policy decisions in either a business or government setting. At the highest levels, strategic intelligence is the result of the broad-based collection of information and can be used to drive larger policy decisions. Though not always related to security, the term does often imply security work.
The work of an intelligence analyst can be broad and varied, however, it always involves the process of strategic intelligence analysis in some capacity. Strategic intelligence analysis refers to the process of acquiring and interpreting information for the purpose of answering complex questions about current operations, predicting future needs or behavior, and developing solutions to organizational issues.
An intelligence analyst, then, is a professional who uses this process to gather, analyze, and interpret data and information. They make assessments in support of policy and decision-makers. Intelligence analysts can work in a variety of settings across the public and private sector, and their main objective is to identify and analyze threats, challenges, or opportunities so that key players in a given scenario can make better-informed decisions.
Due to the value of their work and the level of expertise needed for this role, intelligence analysts are in-demand professionals who typically receive generous compensation for their efforts. According to PayScale, the average annual salary for intelligence analysts is $68,595 per year; however, this number can reach up to $103,000 per year depending on where an individual works and their level of education and experience.
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What Do Intelligence Analysts Do?
In order to fully appreciate what an intelligence analyst does, Dave Hagen—assistant teaching professor for Northeastern University’s master’s in Strategic Intelligence & Analysis program—points out that you must first understand the distinction between information and intelligence. Information, he explains, includes data about a particular circumstance. Intelligence, on the other hand, involves the collection, analysis, and interpretation of such information which is used to draw the conclusions needed to make assessments for policy-makers in support of future planning.
For Example: A business might gather information that a new law has been proposed which would impact its operations. Intelligence would identify how the business would be affected, when the change would occur, and what steps need to be taken.
The goal of intelligence analysis is to identify challenges, threats, and even opportunities, and form well-reasoned judgments in order to advise decision-makers in a given setting so that they are better equipped to respond. To accomplish this, intelligence analysts must “research carefully, consider multiple sources, and make factually-based, analytical judgments that serve to inform policymakers, either in the public or private sector,” Hagen says.
Some of the public settings in which intelligence analysts may work include government agencies and organizations at the federal-, state-, and local-levels. Intelligence analysts also have the opportunity to work in the private sector, including in the world of business, where the practice is used to gather and analyze information that can be used to maximize efficiency within a company and evaluate competition.
Roles and Responsibilities
Although the product or outcome of intelligence analysis may vary between specific professions in this field, the process remains the same. For example, in a military setting, strategic intelligence analysis may be focused on identifying threats to national security, while in business, the goal may be to identify challenges that an organization may face. Despite the differences in each scenario, intelligence analysts will typically follow the same process to pinpoint and analyze the situation at hand.
For this reason, regardless of whether they work in the public or private sector, the roles and responsibilities of intelligence analysts typically include:
- Researching and collecting relevant information regarding challenges, threats, or opportunities from various sources. This may include, for example, nurturing contacts who act as sources of information, or monitoring online threads, forums, etc. where those with information tend to gather. These collection efforts often encompass an array of disciplines, including economics, market trends, demographics, and more.
- Evaluating the significance and validity of incoming information. Just because a source has provided information does not mean that it is accurate. It may even be a form of counterintelligence released to disrupt the intelligence-gathering process. Intelligence analysts must be skilled at assessing the degree of fidelity or credibility of received information.
- Analyzing and interpreting information. Once the information has been gathered and validated, it must be analyzed in order for a business or government to understand how it fits into the broader picture.
- Drawing fact-driven, analytical conclusions based on that analysis. Information without analysis or conclusion is not assessed. For example, Hagen explains that “a Twitter report of an incident has value, however an assessment of its credibility has not yet been made.” In fact, too much information can be paralyzing to an organization or agency if it is translated into actionable steps.
- Communicating their findings with others. After analysis is complete, the intelligence analyst must communicate those findings to policymakers and key stakeholders. Writing detailed reports, generating presentations, and other modes of communication are all critical.
Whether an intelligence analyst works in the public or private sector studying government issues, criminal intelligence, or business competition, there are several skills that are needed in order to be successful in this role. Some of the most important skills for intelligence analysts include:
- Strong research skills: In order to draw meaningful conclusions from intelligence, analysts must first collect information from multiple sources, evaluate the validity of each source, and bring the information together to make a factually based, analytical assessment. Therefore, strong research skills are critical for the collection and evaluation of information to ensure that the insights gleaned from analysis are well-informed.
- Critical thought and rational problem solving: Once sufficient information has been collected, an analyst must be able to think critically and rationally in order to draw conclusions and generate actionable intelligence.
- Self-awareness: It is important for those who hold intelligence-focused roles to be self-aware and able to recognize their cognitive biases. It is inevitable that individuals will hold biases when interacting with information, but it is vital that intelligence analysts can recognize and manage their biases so that they do not interfere with analysis.
- Written communication: Intelligence analysts need to have exemplary communication skills in order to articulate their findings to various stakeholders. An analyst could have outstanding research and analysis skills, but, without excellent writing skills, their ability to communicate their conclusions to key players is greatly diminished.
Becoming an Intelligence Analyst
While the requirements for becoming an intelligence analyst vary depending on the specific area in which they work, in general, most intelligence analysis positions will require that an applicant hold at least a bachelor’s degree.
An advanced degree, such as a Master’s in Strategic Intelligence and Analysis, is often required in order to reach more senior positions or leadership roles. Earning such a degree provides professionals with the technical and practical skills needed to rise in the ranks and ultimately become a leader in this field.
Studying strategic intelligence and analysis at the graduate level also arms professionals with a deeply analytical skill set that can be applied to a broad range of fields. At Northeastern, for example, students are offered the opportunity to dive deeply into a particular area of interest by pursuing one of several concentrations, including Analysis for Homeland Security, Intelligence Community Operations and Analysis, and Remote Sensing among others.
Additionally, students in Northeastern’s program have the ability to put theory to practice by participating in Northeastern’s experiential learning opportunities. Throughout the program, students are given these unique chances to network with professionals in the strategic intelligence field, as well as learn from industry-leading faculty each time they enter the classroom. Working professionals in the program may also choose to collaborate with their employer to develop a project that addresses a key business need in order to apply their learning to a real-world problem.
If you’re considering starting a rewarding career as an intelligence analyst, developing the skills that you’ll need to thrive in the field is an important first step. Learn more about Northeastern’s Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence and Analysis and explore how this degree can help set you on a path toward success.