One of the first things to know about learning at the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is that it incorporates an oral tradition of storytelling. Before CIA officers are allowed to retire, they’re required to reflect on their time with the agency and hone in on the one story or lesson they want to share with those still there — the key takeaway of their careers — and capture that via video, audio or a written document.
Jonathan Kayes, a 26-year veteran of the CIA and its chief learning officer, relayed an example of one such story of an officer who “only served in places where the world fell apart. He was in Tehran in the late ’70s in between the two takeovers of the [American] embassy. He was in Kuwait in the mid-’70s when there were shootings against America there.” This officer was also present for the October 1981 assassination of Anwar El Sadat, sitting a few seats down from the then-president of Egypt in the grandstand of a stadium in Cairo.
“The parade was coming around the stadium, and Sadat was shot, right there in front of the crowd,” Kayes said. “And our chief of station, without missing a beat, reached into his pocket for a bunch of change — because it was the era before cell phones — [and] walked over to the nearest pay phone and started calling in, reporting to our office here to Washington to say this is what just happened to this important world leader and this is what we have to know. That ability to think on your feet, be cool [and] collect information; that’s one of those great stories that wraps it up.”
Another example of such anecdotal knowledge preservation is the experience of current CIA Director of Intelligence Michael Morell on Sept. 11, 2001. Morell served as President George W. Bush’s briefer that day, a story later captured and relayed to all of the agencies’ officers “as an example of what it’s like to be in the center of the bull’s-eye,” Kayes said. “The way that translates for the average CIA officer is whether we like it or not, we are going to be in the middle of some key historic events, because it’s the nature of [the] business that we do. We want our officers to understand that they are part of the fabric of U.S. national security and they have to be thinking in those terms quite a lot.”
Kayes said that most CIA officers will never find themselves in situations of that magnitude, but the stories convey the skills and qualities the agency believes are essential.
The CIA finds itself in a unique position with respect to learning and development because it must regard its new hires as blank slates — they come in possessing none of the skills they’ll need to perform their jobs. “If they already knew how to be spies, we probably wouldn’t want to hire them,” Kayes said.
A key discipline the CIA drills into its officers is to harness their natural curiosity in a manner that is applicable at the highest levels of government.“You look at the past to help inform what you can say about today and put that into the hands of those who need to make decisions, whether that’s a tactical decision in a war zone, as is the case today, or whether it’s looking at things like climate change and how that can impact crop levels in parts of Africa 25 years from now, and what does that mean in terms of how the United States’ national security could be factored in a quarter-century hence,” Kayes said.
“But we always have to be applicable. We like people to explore, to think theoretically, because they may find a new construct to frame the world, but it has to be something that on the analytic side we could put in front of the president as actionable.”
I Could Tell You, but Then I’d Have to Kill You
Before joining the CIA in the early 1980s, Kayes studied political science at Columbia University, with a focus on Sino-Soviet relations. He then spent time in China and Taiwan before returning to complete Columbia’s international relations master’s program with a focus on economics.
Kayes was initially “flummoxed” by not being able to tell friends and family where he worked. “I was given the option of telling my family, and I told all of my closest, nearest and dearest what I was doing, and then I had to keep it secret, which resulted in several relatives just shutting up when anybody asked what Jonathan was doing,” he said. “For years, people thought I was an abject failure.”
But Kayes found in the CIA a variety of tasks that suited him perfectly. “My learning style is [that] I get restless if I do something for more than two or three years, generally, unless I can really enrich it,” he said. “So as an organization, we moved me around the world every couple of years, and I had to always learn new things. Wherever I went, I had to learn about a new country, a new culture [and] new topics that we were interested in. At the same time, I realized I’d had an abiding passion in the topic of leadership, and that led me formally to the learning field.”
Kayes first became active in helping develop the agency’s leadership courses in the late 1990s. When the CLO position was created, Kayes applied for it and won, taking the position in April 2006.
Kayes can’t reveal exactly how many officers he’s responsible for educating as the CIA’s CLO, but can give a ballpark figure. “There are about 100,000 people in the entire United States intelligence community, of which the CIA is a portion,” he said. “We are less than that, but bigger than a breadbasket.”
One fact the CIA will disclose is that half of its workforce has been hired since 9/11. That makes for a young workforce being trained to gather intelligence in an ever-changing world. For these reasons, Kayes has aggressively moved to make all training available online.
“We have a workforce that’s deployed around the world — every time zone practically we’ve got someone in,” he said. “Putting them on an airplane to bring them back here to train them was the old model. It’s not efficient. Forget the money for a second; it costs us a huge amount of time to move somebody from wherever they may be to come back here.”
The agency still does some of its leadership training in a classroom, but it’s making any other learning piece it can available online. “If it’s language training, where we can put a webcam in front of a language instructor and have her beam across the world to teach somebody who’s sitting out in the Badlands Arabic or Farsi or any other language, then we’re going to use that because not only is it efficient, it’s effective,” he said.
Kayes said he experienced a learning curve in advancing learning and development at the CIA to this point. “When I started in my job, my then-boss said to me that I needed to identify an online learning management system as quickly as possible,” he said. “His mantra was, ‘We need to do it in three clicks and seven seconds.’ I saluted and said ‘Yes, we will do that,’ [but] I will honestly say to you, I did not know what a learning management system was when I came into this job.”
But he learned quickly and today has moved learning and development at the CIA to just-in-time learning. “If you’re talking about Iran and you have a finite amount of time, what are the key things that somebody needs to know that we can give them in an asynchronous online source where they can sit at their desktop wherever they are and learn about this new issue that’s come up,” Kayes said.
Recruit Spies and Steal Secrets
Though his position is unique among CLOs, Kayes is quick to point out how much he has in common with his colleagues in corporate learning and development — in particular, the challenge in aligning the learning function to what a given business does. The CIA, he explained, is nothing if not mission-centric.
“We are mission-driven from the get-go, and learning is support of mission but we’re not key to mission,” he said. “I could use more money and I could use more people, but I bet every CLO you talk to could say exactly that same thing.”
However, Kayes said that learning and development has direct support from the CIA’s senior leadership, noting that less than 90 days after taking office, current CIA director Leon Panetta declared language training critical to the agency’s success and doubled its budget in this area.
Asked how he measures the success of the agency’s learning and development initiatives, Kayes said, “I hate to use the Kirkpatrick Model, so I’m just not even going to go there, at least by terminology.” But his methods sound much like the fourth level of the Kirkpatrick Model: results.
“When we put somebody through a series of courses that are long, intensive and taking a lot of our resources, we do look at those at a deep level of critical analysis,” he said. “So every couple of years, we will go out and do interviews with graduates of the program, with their managers and sometimes with the managers of their managers and say, ‘Did we put the right learning into your head so that you could do the mission, and as you look back on the course that you took maybe three or four years ago, what should we not have been teaching you?’ We’re always being iterative; we’re always looking at what can we take out [and] what should we put in.”
But overall, he said, the ultimate measure of his effectiveness in learning initiatives, and of the CIA itself, is how well its officers perform two tasks: “recruit spies and steal secrets.”