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Published: June 9, 2020

A more scientific approach to decision making

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In this blog piece, Chris Bradley, a researcher studying at the University of Portsmouth, introduces a new survey on the topic of decision-making in NGO security risk management.

To aid decision-makers, an organisation positions itself best when it maximises its strengths – its people, working collaboratively (from the top to the bottom) to deal with a multitude of operational challenges. To make effective decisions we need knowledge, and we often need it fast to aid our missions, protect our people and understand our operating environment – immediately, and in the coming weeks, months and years to come. 

Data+ information=knowledge* is a simple formula on paper but much more difficult in practice, often time constraints, the accuracy of data and information to inform our knowledge is against our organisations and us. So how can we speed up those processes and increase the accuracy of knowledge?


When we look into the future, a key question for any organisation is not who we are now, but what type of organisation do we need to be, refining our current systems and processes adapting to the challenges ahead. As we move closer to a desired goal of security becoming a profession, the NGO-sector may need to look outward and learn from those all-knowing understanding professions of medicine, science and law. These professions are enriched by standardised education, training and a common language, refining processes and evaluating data and information to help answer those critical epistemological questions: What is the truth? How can we know it?

The way we make decisions is shaped by our history, geography, culture, ethnicity, religion, personnel characteristics and organisational structures. Without the relevant training and organisational structures in place, these areas can aid us, and they can hinder us – consciously and unconsciously. A solution to this may lie in the practices grounded in the professions above with the application of structural analytical techniques (SATs).

SATs aid in accuracy, speed and transparency of decision making. They help us describe what is happening, generate ideas, test those ideas, create a culture of challenging ideas, aid in conflict management and support our decisions. When incorporated into virtual collaborative networks, ‘data + information = knowledge’ becomes less of a mountain to climb than what it might appear to be.

About the researcher

My name is Chris Bradley currently studying for a Professional Doctorate in Security Risk Management (DSyRM) at the University of Portsmouth (UoP), UK. By working with GISF, I hope to produce a thesis (and several articles) which enables the NGO-sector to improve the speed and accuracy of decision making through greater collaboration between staff and agencies via the application of SATs and collaborative networks.

I spent 12 years in the UK military. Since 2006 I have worked in several countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Ukraine and Somalia in several security-related roles. Three years ago, I evaluated my credentials based on my work experiences. I identified what I believed was a distinctive gap in critical thinking skills within security risk management and completed an MA in Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel London.

The MA taught me what I believe is a missing element to security risk management: collaborative and critical thinking within virtual networks with the application of standardised processes incorporated into any pre-existing risk management frameworks such as ISO 31000. While the MA was a significant first step, I felt it was only the tip of the iceberg. I, therefore, chose to embark on the DSyRM to enhance my understanding of critical thinking from various sectors who’ve refined processes from operating in VUCA environments (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity).

About the research

While much of the research may be new to NGO staff and organisations, the literature and practices are commonplace within businesses, governmental institutions and law, which like NGOs have to make difficult decisions quickly and often with complex data and information.

Over the last year I read several EISF blogs and found many themes and concerns and compared them to how businesses, governmental institutions and law have implemented standardised processes to overcome and improve the accuracy of their decisions. These themes and concerns form the structure of the survey with the results creating the foundations of the thesis and GISF articles.

  1. Cognitive biases. Do we fully understand how it affects our individual and organisational judgements? If we are all susceptible to bias, how do we overcome them;
  2. To what degree do we use SATs to problem-solve issues by concentrating on the evidence presented to us. Or do we use too much intuitive judgment;
  3. What are our members and affiliates views on the current standards of organisational decision making? Is it inclusive of shared opinion, is it too slow, do we need to improve it, do we have time to learn new skills, do we need standardised processes; and
  4. Do we work collaboratively and virtually enough to share ideas and reduce the speed in which decisions are made? Do we need to change our practices mirroring those organisations who’ve adapted from similar challenges faced by NGOs?

Take the survey

Survey structure and rationale

Part 1, heuristics (mental shortcuts) & cognitive biases: Mental shortcuts and cognitive bias are decision errors rooted in the brain’s simple information processing strategies. Many of these errors are a product of our professional experiences, organisational training or pre-existing beliefs which may lead to mental ruts injecting bias into the way we think. Hundreds of biases have been identified; the survey concentrates on 12 of the most common. Mental shortcuts such as ‘groupthink’ (choosing an option that the majority agree with) are familiar to many members, whereas ‘premature closure’ (discontinuing searching for a reason, when a reasonable answer is found, and the search for cause stops) may be less familiar. Likewise, most people are aware of biases such as ‘confirmation bias’ (seeking information to support our pre-existing beliefs), and less so ‘mirror-imaging’  (assuming people think they way would do).

Eliminating bias is impossible; no study or testing has developed the magic solution. However, the more we share ideas and build in organisational structures to help reduce these biases; the more likely we are to achieve increased accuracy to the questions we seek. This is where SATs come in to play.

Part 2, SATs: VUCA is part and parcel of what of our daily lives, so what can we do to navigate our way through multiple challenges? SATs enable us to evaluate data and information with a little more scientific rigour beyond that of individual intuition and experience. Within security risk management, this is vital. While ‘scientific rigour’ may seem something out of the ordinary to many of us, we apply ‘scientific rigour’ regularly performing risk assessments for journey management, protection of an office, to futures planning of country risk assessment.

The survey focuses on seven categories: description, idea generation, hypotheses testing, linking cause and effect, challenging assumptions, dealing with conflict management, and decision support. These seven categories help to cover most aspects of how we may choose to implement processes from the initial steps of formulating a decision to the publication and transparency of how we came about that decision.

The SATs originate from many domains of medicine, business, law, the military and intelligence agencies. In a world which is mounting in complexity and organisational boundaries, Intelligence as a social science has cheery-picked the best of those professions to introduce standardised ‘critical thinking’ processes, reduce bias and publish collaborative assessments in virtual networks.

Part 3, GISF and affiliates views: No study would be of value without the valid input of opinions and experiences of its members. The survey centres around critical questions and challenges stressed in GISF forum papers and blogs. The questions in part three provide valuable insight of members views of how well or not we conduct analysis, time constraints with analysis and to what extent we feel we collaborate inclusive enough of the opinions of tactical, operational and strategic management levels.

Part 4, collaboration in a virtual network: This brings us to the final part of the survey: what organisation do you think you need to be?  If we want knowledge to improve the accuracy and speed of our decisions.  Solutions may reside in those professions who too have to deal with ambiguous data and have transformed their organisations with more virtual calls, online sharing documents with an emphasis on narrowing those strategic, operational and tactical level boundaries. The findings from governmental departments and businesses on virtual collaboration conclude:

  1. The best method for virtual collaboration is the engagement of other minds, aided by information systems, nor vice versa;
  2. Social networks are essential in collaboration, ensuring teams, departments and organisations come together bringing more ideas, views and experiences to bear;
  3. To achieve a collaborative organisational ethos requires continued support from senior leadership. Organisations need by-in, if they don’t we are more likely to fail and not read critical issues; and
  4. Tactical level information is often an organisation’s greatest asset (the people).

The survey examines to what extent collaboration is conducted across all department levels, what systems are used and how often. These results will help the researcher understand the current levels of collaboration and compare them to the views expressed to some of the questions in part 3.

Research and network input

Over the development of this research, I intend to share results via GISF and debate ideas with as many people as possible. This research wants to practice what it preaches and produce a collaborative thesis for the benefit of the entire NGO global community. Therefore, input from GISF’s broad network is vital.

I and GISF welcome your input and feedback and hope you find the survey informative.

Take the survey

Contact details

*While there are many interpretations of data, information and knowledge. The distinctions below clarify the terminology and its use in this article:
DATA: facts, figures not organised
INFORMATION: Organised data to the point of being helpful 
KNOWLEDGE: Insights to understanding a situation through the collection and processing of data and information.


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