Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Via Kent's Imperative, I learned that George Friedman of Stratfor is now blogging. KI also has a critique of Stratfor itself, a taste below:

"Stratfor thus stands somewhat apart from the rest, as an independent shop in continuous operation for over a decade. But in that decade, its track record has been exceptionally unsteady. It first made its bones during the Kosovo crisis, with unique new information sources (in an area where few shops had anything at all) and the occasional innovative but solid analytic line. Its attempt to act as a “global” shop in the mould – and even, boastfully, claiming competition with – CIA, did not fare so well over subsequent years. Occasionally, they have a good piece. But often their analysis reflects their hiring strategies, which Friedman himself proudly holds up as an ideal model – the selection of young students, fresh from university, with no prior intelligence experience. Stratfor claims this allows them to build new analysts with no “bad habits” that might have been learned in the intelligence community. However, it ensures that they have a workforce that will always lack substantive experience, creating a shallow bench on accounts. This can be quickly and professionally fatal on hard targets, or when they step into areas in which existing analysis is a career long affair for an entire analytical sub-specialty (such as oil market dynamics). While we are great believers in the value of the beginner’s mind, and of the importance of Smoking Mirror, we think Stratfor’s approach goes a bit too far."

Personally, I have never been as high on Stratfor's products as other bloggers in the foreign policy/intel/military/national security area (nor have I ever slammed them, for that matter), my preferences running toward RAND, The Jamestown Foundation, PINR and several other think tanks. I tend to mentally segregate Stratfor in an unnamed category alongside Seymour Hersh and Yossef Bodansky but many rungs above MEMRI and the DEBKA file. I'll read what they had to say and go "Hmmmmmm...." Perhaps this is unfair; I candidly admit this arises from an intuitive prejudice or instinct on my part rather than any kind of systematic analysis and if anyone cares to argue otherwise, I'll give them a fair hearing in the comment section.

I'm not really intending to post on comparative value of analytical sources, however. What I found interesting in this bit of information was that Dr. Friedman, already having a substantial platform in Stratfor, arrived at the conclusion that blogging would, nevertheless, be a value-added activity for his ROA ( "return on attention"). Why ?

My guess is the interactivity and connectivity/network-building of blogging is a qualitatively different medium for broadcasting information from the very Web 1.0 Stratfor. One that reaches an audience of potential allies, not mere consumers of information.

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Just some thoughts from a decade working in/following the research business. Stratfor is a mid-market qualitative analysis shop. It's not research for pay (the low end) but not a top of the line strategy shop (the high end). For that you need real intellectual horsepower and experience.

Unfortunately, George has fallen into a classic trap in the business. He's built a one man show with a low cost choir to amplify his approach/message. The way out of this trap and into the high end/big bucks world is to either bring in those with the talent to move the thinking forward or turn the internally grown analysts into stars that can compete with George for the spotlight. Of course, that is unlikely to happen.
Having observed Stratfor over the years, I suspect that Friedman is once again engaged in trying to pick the "beginners' minds" of his readers.

Stratfor had a forum (YourView) early on, in which I participated with a couple of pseudonyms. It quickly ran out of control, with some amusing contributors like the fellow who offered long and semi-coherent analyses of the Trilateral Commission's (and others of the usual suspects') controlling the world. Friedman expressed consternation, even participating in the forum occasionally to exhort us to better behavior. We countered that moderators were needed. He also tried some realtime interactivity, which collapsed in insanity every time.

He finally pulled the plug on the forum. I hear that Stratfor has a moderated forum now, but I gave up my subscription long ago, when the price outran the quality.

I suspected that some of our contributions on the forum were taken up; it may even be that Friedman said that he wanted to use our input.

So I suspect that the blog is intended to gather some of that "wild" intelligene out there. He's getting a lot of comments, none from oldtimers like me that I can identify.

As a long-time subscriber to Stratfor, I believe considering it as an alternative source of intel and analysis -- like PINR and RAND -- is wildly inappropriate.

It works, in my experience, quite well as a hgh-grade alternative to the Economist. Much briefer, more focused, higher quality, greater depth on key issues. It would be perfect if the archieves could be cross-referenced using modern tools.

Their analysts are, like journalists at the Economist, young and experienced (the Econ's pretence of being written by "old hands" is as much PR as Soldier of Fortune's rep). But Stratfor's are either better educated, or slightly more experienced, or just better edited.

Also be careful, as with all sources of info, when the shop gets out of its domain of expertise. The Economist's economic coverage is excellent, on par with the Financial Times. Stratfor's is a joke. Similarly, their coverage of post-Katrina was wrong in several major ways (good try, however -- probably failed due to lack of resources committed).

Neither gives more than consensus wisdom. Note both missing the recovery of Russia under Putin (the Economist totally so). I guess one has to surf the wild edges of the web for that.
Hi Anon,

Great comment.

IMHO there are many bright ppl who, for various reasons of control, ego or insecurity, are determined to be a sun in a solar system rather than a star in a constellation. The pity is that, as a result, they frequently achieve less than they would if paired with peers who can push them to their limit and correct their errors.

The manhattan project was one example of this process, at some points enabling or forcing collaborations between rival physicists that often never happen in competitive, ego-driven, academic environments.

Hi Cheryl,

That was an interesting anecdote. You may very well be correct. I think the blogosphere gets " mined" by other media more often than we realize.


Nice comparison.The problem for Stratfor is that economics, like culture, is often a critical meta-driver of political and social events. It's something that has to be understood in context if the analysis is to be sound.
CKR is correct about mining the internet hive mind.

Take a look at the history through John Robbs blog, he does the same thing. Many of Robb's posts on supposed breakthroughs come from a ideas that commentators have left on his blogs (which he rarely gives them credit for).
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