“The father of business intelligence”

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Marren, P. (2004), "“The father of business intelligence”", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/jbs.2004.28825faf.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“The father of business intelligence”

Stevan Dedijer, business thinker and theorist, warrior and breaker of intellectual and actual barriers, died June 13 at the age of 92.

OSS.net, the Web site of the open source intelligence network, hailed Steve as "the father of business intelligence and the cardinal of open source intelligence ... he lived large and he died peacefully. We honor him and will remember him."

Steve was born a Serbian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He became successively a Yugoslav, a Princeton soccer player, a Communist, a Wall Street reporter for Newsweek, a Soviet spy, a war hero in the 101st Airborne in the Second World War, editor of Yugoslavia's two most prominent political journals, a UN delegate, head of a covert nuclear weapons program, a dissident, a refugee, an implacable opponent of communist oppression, a university professor, a founder of the discipline of "business intelligence," a Croatian citizen, an opponent of Serbian aggression, and a tireless advocate for increasing the "intelligence" or people, organizations, nations, and the world.

But he is best known as one of the founders of "business intelligence." Business intelligence is not corporate espionage – Stevan hated this connotation and insisted that any company that stooped to such practices could not be described as "intelligent" in any sense at all.

Business intelligence is the rational application of the principles of intelligence services to business. It is simply the collection, analysis, and application of strategic information to business decisions.

After a lifetime much of which was spent in intelligence circles, the Yugoslav dissident Dedijer found himself in Sweden, at the School of Economics and Management at Lund University in 1961. An ex-Communist with little or no business experience, he had washed on shore with few skills that were obviously relevant to his new home. So, in typical Stevan style, he took a look at what he DID possess, and began thinking of how the principles of intelligence might be applied to business.

To his surprise, the more he dug into the subject, the more he found that this was far from a new idea. The Wallenberg Bank in Sweden had an intelligence department that was a century old. English spies had been sent out successfully in the 1500s to find the secrets of the Dutch ceramics industry – which in turn had been procured by Dutch adventurers from the Chinese. The entire spice trade of the East Indies had been shrouded in secrecy as thick as any military weapons program for centuries.

It dawned on Stevan that, far from being an alien transplant from war into business, intelligence in business probably had at least as long a history as intelligence in war. Indeed, the borders between the two were sometimes hard to draw. Intelligence, he concluded, was an integral and necessary part of any self-maximizing system in conditions of competition. These included armies, businesses, nations, human beings, animals, ecosystems, and even the entire world. He was fond of quoting Heraclitus: "War is the father of all things." Wherever competition existed, intelligence must be involved.

As a result of his new notions, which were the result of the juxtaposition of two apparently disparate concepts, in the mid-1960s, Stevan began teaching a very controversial course on intelligence at Lund. Many among the student body, radicalized by the Vietnam War, misinterpreted the course's purpose, which was far broader and more interesting than the teaching of spy techniques to would-be James Bonds. To be sure, the history and principles of military intelligence were discussed in the course. But those that took the course found that this aspect was just a small part of a much bigger idea: the "intelligence revolution."

The intelligence revolution he foresaw was, in part, the privatization of intelligence. Long before the Internet, Stevan foresaw a time when information would range freely around the globe, with no respect for borders, ideologies, or alliances. He had little respect for the "spy vs. spy" sort of espionage which dominated that time, in spite of the fact that he had taken part in it – on the Soviet and later the Yugoslav side – during the Cold War, before his disenchantment from Communism. Stealing secrets was a trivial and unintelligent matter in most cases, he said; real intelligence came more from intelligent analysis of what came to be known as "open sources" than from cloak and dagger operations.

From his concept of "the intelligent business," Stevan moved on, oblivious as always to borders, to ideas about the intelligent society, the intelligent world, the intelligent life. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, Steve taught and wrote about intelligence, broadly defined, at Lund, with stints lecturing at Dartmouth, Harvard and several other universities. He was a fixture at the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals and several other organizations devoted to the new discipline he had helped to identify. By the 1990s, a majority of the Fortune 500, and many more non-American companies, had intelligence departments, as a result of Stevan's work, and that of Jan Herring of The Futures Group, and other groundbreaking thinkers, about the use of intelligence in business.

But the topics that interested him defied categorization. He wrote articles on the history of his adopted city of Dubrovnik, "an intelligent republic"; he wrote a monograph analyzing the espionage of the Elizabethans, with special emphasis on the coded meanings contained in contemporary portraits of Elizabeth; he researched the writings of (the quite non-fictional) Cyrano de Bergerac, in whom he noticed a similar propensity to see things from a wonderfully alien perspective. He was omnivorous.

Much of what has now come to be known as "knowledge management" emerged in part from the thinking of Stevan Dedijer and other advocates of an "intelligence approach" to business. The triumph of the name "knowledge management" owes far more to political correctness – a perhaps well-founded fear of being identified with corporate espionage – than to accuracy. "Intelligence," including all its commutations, is a far more descriptive term for the discipline than "knowledge." "Knowledge" is static; "intelligence" is dynamic.

It was perhaps inescapable given the connotations of the words, but it is somewhat unfortunate nonetheless that "knowledge" has become predominant. "Knowledge" is a less dangerous term politically, but it tends to conjure up images of piles of data or facts warehoused either in the brain or a disk drive. Dedijer always favored intelligent analysis, the idea of a self-altering, self-maximizing strategic capacity, over the mere industrial-scale piling up of data.

The failure of "intelligence" to catch on in the marketplace of business ideas is mostly due to its military connotation. But some of it may also be due to Stevan's entrepreneurial personality, his failure to suffer fools (and sometimes even non-fools) gladly, his inability to recognize and bow before cherished intellectual distinctions, and a Zorba-like irascibility. This fearless inability to dissimulate was his hallmark. It cost him almost a decade in the shadows in Yugoslavia as a dissident, but it also made him an unforgettable figure to those of us lucky enough to know him.

Stevan liked to call himself a "World Jumper." He spent his entire life of almost 93 years leaping from one world or expertise or field of study or culture into another. He was also a literal jumper, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in the Second World War who pursued sky-diving into his seventies and celebrated birthdays into his nineties by parasailing around Dubrovnik harbor.

Intellectually, he had a similar refusal to recognize borders – or, more accurately, a deep hunger to enter strange and alien realms. He told me that the first time he went to Saudi Arabia as a consultant, as he deplaned and saw the utterly alien dress, customs, language, and manners of his hosts, he said to himself, "'Steve, it's time to change the tape.' You see, we have hardware in our brains that is like the tape recorder. Then there is the tape – that is culture. The tapes playing in our heads are our culture. We do not recognize that other people might have different 'tapes' because we are trapped in our own cultures."

His insatiable intellectual curiosity made him one of those rare human beings who could be equally at home speaking to royalty, the heads of huge multinational businesses, teenagers, and – as a Communist Party organizer in the 1930s in the United States – illiterate, tough immigrant coal miners. "Ireland is the most democratic country in the world," he liked to tell me (an American of Irish lineage). "I sat down in a pub in Dublin next to a man who had just been released from prison. In walked a Senator in the Irish parliament. He sat down next to the convict and we all had a delightful conversation for two hours."

His devotion to creativity in thinking led him constantly to juxtapose apparently utterly alien endeavors – such as spying and business – just to see what insights might tumble out. I once told him that Mencken had defined "humor" as "a capacity to discover hidden and unexpected relations between apparently disparate things." He loved the definition, and agreed that a sense of humor was closely tied up with the capacity for creative thinking and intelligence.

"During the war, I turned a jeep over in France, and my short-term memory was affected," he told me. "The worst thing about it was I could not remember jokes." So after the war, he began to write down all the good jokes he could find. His formidable mother eventually found his list of 250 anti-Tito jokes, and made him burn them as she watched. It was one of the worst moments of his life, he said.

His experience in wartime, during which he jumped behind enemy lines several times, carried a wounded Major General Maxwell Taylor out of a mortar attack, saw the deaths of close friends, and weathered the siege of Bastogne, where he acted as bodyguard to General Anthony McAuliffe, witnessing McAuliffe's famous reply of "Nuts" to a German demand for unconditional surrender, affected him deeply.

His life itself seemed an object lesson of that Heraclitus quote: "War is the father of all things." Before it had well begun, his father, Jevto Dedijer, a member of the Serbian Black Hand organization that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the three year-old Stevan's home city of Sarajevo, had been killed in the First World War. He himself participated in espionage for the Soviet Union in the 1930s in the United States, fought, of course, for America in World War II, worked for the Yugoslavs in the Cold War, and finally returned to Dubrovnik, Croatia for what he told me was "one last Bastogne," when Yugoslavia dissolved into anarchy and self-destruction in the early 1990s.

His people, the Serbs, were, in his opinion, aggressively trampling their neighbors, and had to be resisted. "I feel like a good German under Hitler," he said at the time. "Each Serb tank or plane that is destroyed are victories for good Serbs everywhere."

But it was not easy to be a notable ethnic Serb, even an anti-Milosevic Serb, in wartime Croatia. He wrote to me that "posters I put up for a talk on intelligence I was going to give were torn down because I was a Serb." He proudly sent me a Christmas picture of himself in 1994 with the caption "On my balcony that was damaged by a Serb shell." Still, he persisted, and as Serbia was defeated and Croatia returned to something like normality, Steve continued to lecture and question and "world jump" until he had jumped clean into a new millennium.

Now that he has made his final "world jump," I think back to that 1994 Christmas card, in which he wrote, "Have you seen this movie, 'Forrest Gump?' I saw it here in Dubrovnik last night. I was thinking as I walked back to my apartment, 'we are ALL Gumps!"'

I wrote back to him: "You carried a general out of a battle, and met world leaders, and witnessed historic events, and your life touched the history of this whole century. YOU are a Gump, maybe the Gump of the century."

Now a splendid door has been shut forever on that century. The world, and business, is a less intelligent place without him.

Patrick MarrenPatrick Marren is a strategic consultant with the Futures Strategy Group. Clients he has worked for have included the US Coast Guard, NASA, the FAA, the Panama Canal Commission, various aspects of the US military, and numerous Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL marrenp@aol.com.

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