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The evolution of the analyst: turning tactical analysts into strategic thinkers

The post below is courtesy of Tom Fisher of Imagenetic simulations, who writes about his recent work developing a simulation for use in training financial intelligence units in strategic analysis.—RB

I knew we were on to someone when, mid-course, a student approached me with a problem.

Tom, we’ve got a problem.  We can’t deal with all these requests for information from the other teams.  We simply don’t have enough time.  There’s so much information we’re having a hard time tracking it all, and some of it is incomplete.  And some members of our team aren’t pulling their own weight.  It’s really frustrating. What should…

That’s when I stopped the analyst-student and said simply: “How is this any different from your real life job?”

With a smile I got the response I was looking for:

Got it.

Last year I was approached by the World Bank to help develop a Strategic Intelligence Analysis Course for the Egmont Group of FIUs (Financial Intelligence Units). My task was to create an interactive, engaging learning experience building on anti-money laundering simulations and training I had created the year before.

The task was daunting, in that the volume of information we’d need had to be large enough in scale to represent a real strategic challenge, yet manageable enough to be meshed into a 5-day course. The training also needed to be country and region neutral since the Egmont Group of FIUs is an international organization with member countries of every ethnicity, creed, religion and political viewpoint.

Pressing forward, I developed a live-action simulation using over 100 real world financial crime cases as inspiration and folded them into a compelling story arc involving 6 fictionalized countries, a number of fully fleshed-out criminal organizations as well as an Eco-terrorist group.

Students were divided into 5 teams each representing a different fictional country with its own particular issues, and full background. The teams were then tasked with presenting, to their FIUs CEO, a 10 minute National Security Threat Analysis, in preparation for an upcoming meeting with their country’s leadership.  The sixth country was used as a sample for our group exercises and training,  but those cases were germane to the overall national security of each country as there were myriad crossover points between the cases as monies, proceeds of crime, influence and resources flowed from country to country.

The students had to develop their analyses using specific structured analytic techniques taught throughout the course (such as those presented in Heuer and Pherson’s Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis), drawing on information from their country’s cases, other countries’ cases (via requests through the simulated-Egmont group secure web), simulated news items and Internet reports (which included false information and red herrings).

Additionally, we introduced a module on critical thinking processes to structure and evolve the analysts’ logic and creative thinking skills.

The greatest challenge in developing the course was assembling the information to be used in the analytic process and balancing that with the allotted class time. There had to be enough of a challenge without completely overwhelming the process.  Fortunately, I was able to draw upon 100+ existing sanitized cases, and adapt them to the world I had created. If I was forced to create these cases from scratch, the process would have taken months of full-time work. As it was, adapting the existing cases, transcribing them and adding the cross-references between the cases was weeks of work, alone. The cases themselves, being real-world examples, we’re inherently believable. They portrayed actual events that had occurred over the past few years. In cross-referencing them, and making the cases coexist in the fictional world, I had to ensure that the connections remained plausible, and reflected the realities of contemporary financial crimes. This, of course, called for research beyond the 100+ cases that were used, and then the creation of an overarching simulation plot to tie everything together.  The plot had to cover not only what the cases had directly covered, but also, where the cases came from, and where the cases were leading.

The next challenge was the creation of believable countries and organizations who were the players upon the simulated world stage. Drawing from existing regional realities, the countries created reflected similarly structured countries without being able to be identified with any one country in particular. This was important because, as stated earlier, the Egmont Group represents FIUs from all over the world, and using real-world countries may have created political discomfort.  This step should not be underestimated. Any successful simulation requires a suspension of disbelief.  That is, the simulation’s “actors” must be able to put themselves in the shoes of the fictional roles they are playing, in this case FIU analysts from a created country. The countries, therefore, had to be completely believable or the simulation would not have worked.  The same must be said for the fictional criminal organizations and terrorist group created as outside actors in the simulation. I had to create completely believable, functional organizations or the sim would have taken on the flavor of a fictionalized story that somehow just isn’t right.

Once all these pieces were put in place, filling out the simulation with news items and some white noise/red herrings was significantly easier. Using the plot structure and outline developed, filling in the pieces was a purely creative process that was able to flow smoothly.

The resulting simulation ran extremely well with near 100% buy-in from the participants (those who were able to suspend disbelief). Presentations were quite good, and we could see a number of analysts embracing the techniques taught and, being able to put them into practice through simulation, improve their analytic processes. The evolution of the analysts was virtually immediate because they were able to put into practice their newly acquired knowledge in the sim environment.

Future improvements will include the creation of selected intel reports based on the sim-countries’ cases. Providing the analysts with more advanced information, and reference intel will raise the bar on expectations, but further reflect the “reality” of the sim by making other materials available. The simulation is a living entity, and just as real-world realities change it, too, must evolve with every iteration,  providing a constant challenge, and creating an even more engaging experience to develop better and better analytic capacity.

(On a side-note, buy-in was so high that each team actually developed, on their own time, national anthems for their fictional countries. When you can achieve that level of dedication, and, frankly, fun, the learning experience and prospects for success are much enhanced.)

Tom Fisher

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