november 2011 | Cover Story
Strategic Intelligence: Nathalie Wlodarczyk
“One could compare Exclusive Analysis to a private intelligence service, but without the spies. We help our clients to foresee future events in the country they’re working in, or considering working in, so that they can plan more effectively. We analyse things like: Is a coup likely or large demonstrations? Which governments are likely to change the laws in a way that affects foreign companies and charities operating in the country? We’re based in London, but have a global network of analysts and external sources.”
Until recently, Nathalie Wlodarczyk has been one of two managers for a department with thirty people. Her area of responsibility has been risks connected with violence, such as terrorism, war and other unrest. The other manager is responsible for non-violent risks.
“I’ve modified my role somewhat to spend more time in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where my partner lives. I divide my time between Freetown and London. In my new role I train our analysts and others working away from home via Skype. They mainly receive training in our analytical approach. I have some one-on-one coaching as it’s important for them not to feel isolated and it keeps them updated on the new approach within the organisation.
Exclusive Analysis Ltd has a workforce of roughly 200 around the world. The majority are part-time employees and one person may cover one or several countries in a region.
“They could be academics, journalists, government employees, people working in industry or private businesspeople. They are people with a great interest in events in these countries but who are unable to work full-time perhaps. They work a few days a week or keep a check on the progress of specific areas.”
After September 11, 2001 a new niche emerged within the insurance sector called terrorism insurance. Nathalie Wlodarczyk says that the demand was enormous and it has been a great success, but there was a hitch. The insurance companies had to be able to put the right price on the policies. To do this they needed to understand differences between, for example, Colombia, New York and Cairo.
“This paved the way for a new type of consultancy service. We who had experience from the analysis side began working with this. We help our clients to scratch under the surface to find out what’s pushing developments in different parts of the world and how it’ll impact the future. They’re given the skills to plan more effectively, set the right price, invest and send their employees there. It’s interesting work. There are always new issues cropping up, and in different parts of the world. The job is never monotonous.”
Roughly a third of Exclusive Analysis’s clients are from the insurance sector. The client portfolio includes large multinational corporations, banks, investment funds and others in the finance sector, oil and mining companies, government and international bodies, and development and aid organisations.
Nathalie Wlodarczyk took her doctorate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London and has written a book entitled Magic and Warfare: Appearance and Reality in Contemporary African Conflict and Beyond.
“In the book, which is built around my dissertation, I go one step further in trying to understand violence that appears irrational and barbaric from the outside. Articles from the late 1990s about conflicts in Africa very often focused on some lunatic promising the people that they would be immune against bullets or that they had a priestess leading the troops. It was used as an explanation to why things were barbaric and irrational.
“One has to ask why certain people choose something that relies upon the supernatural to explain why something is a logical choice. For example, if everybody believes it’s a real resource then it’s logical that they will try to utilise it in planning strategy and tactics, to recruit people, etc. If one could explain and understand why people choose to immunise themselves against bullets or use priestesses to lead them to victory, then one could perhaps understand more of this type of war and conflict.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk’s point of departure was that people in general are not irrational no matter how it may appear, but do things that lead somewhere – a practical approach. Working on the book was an attempt to work out the practicality in this type of magic.
“These people believe that other powers lend a hand in war, particularly in battle. They lead the bullets to where they are destined. There’s a lot of theatre involved as well. As soldiers spray the bullets from their automatic weapons they obviously miss the target a lot. For many people this proves that the magic is working.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk is often asked if their actions are due to a lack of knowledge and education.
“You would think so if you come from Sweden or the UK, but their high priests were surprised that we found it interesting and different, and thought it odd that we didn’t have an equivalent in our armies. The important thing for me was not in determining whether or not the magic worked but in trying to understand how they think.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk believes that she has chosen to work with conflicts because she comes from Sweden, where these kinds of conflicts are very unfamiliar.
“Sweden didn’t participate in the Second World War so there are very few memories of what a conflict like that would entail on the home front. Therefore, it’s fascinating and interesting to try to understand why it happens in other parts of the world.”
It was no surprise when she began working with international issues as it had formed an integral part of her childhood.
“My father was French and we travelled a great deal during the summers. When I began upper secondary school in Umeå it felt natural to enrol in the completely new International Baccalaureate, which was in English and felt more international. I became involved in something called the European Youth Parliament. I and other European teenagers travelled to a town in Europe pretending to be politicians for ten days with no parental or teacher guidance. We went two or three times a year and I travelled to places such as Dublin, Milan, Nicosia, Vienna and Istanbul. When it was time to step up to higher education it felt natural to make contact with some of the people I’d met. Quite a few were going to study in London and through them I heard about the London School of Economics, which I wouldn’t have otherwise. I enrolled there in 1997.
“About the same time, I became engrossed in the workings of violence and extreme violence. At that time Africa was the obvious place for field studies due to the grotesque wars taking place there. It was a logical place to begin in trying to understand why it was a sensible alternative for those involved. Of course, once there, I soon discovered that Africa was interesting in many other ways as well. If feels as though that part of the world is in the middle of shaping its future, not like Europe where everything has slowed down somewhat with the people in a comfort zone. We are no longer engrossed in issues like country, state and politics, unlike in Africa where the people are generally more engaged.”
What advice does Nathalie Wlodarczyk have for those seeking to do business with, or start a business in, an African country?
“Read a lot of history, including modern history. Things have progressed immensely in many places. But ten or twelve years is quite a short time so to understand what could happen you have to know where those who have power come from, what the old conflicts were all about and how many of them still smoulder on.
“In Rwanda, which has progressed the most in recent years, they’ve coped well, but many of the old conflicts have been brushed under the carpet. There’s a good chance that they’ll flare up again. The sudden emergence of 5-star hotels, fast internet and air-conditioned cafés in the capital Kigali does not signal the end of the antagonism. In other places, such as Sierra Leone where things have progressed much slower, many of the underlying conflicts have become dormant and less explosive than what they have been. It’s a slower process that will probably stabilise in time. It’s easier to progress quickly under authoritarian rule, but that usually means that they cut off all the forks along the road. Understanding this balance is important for those seeking to invest or to stay put for a longer period. It’s less important for those coming and going quickly.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk says that there are mainly two things that irritate people who come to Africa: People hardly ever arrive on time and things are very unstructured.
“In Sierra Leone, from where I’ve just returned, it’s more intensive because all the logistics are so time-demanding. It takes longer to get anywhere. There’s more traffic, it’s difficult to find fuel for the car, someone has dug a large hole in the road, there’s no water in the morning or the power’s off, etcetera. It’s impossible to predict arrival times so it doesn’t matter whether you arrive on time or not. The perception of time is more diffuse.
“Meetings drag on forever, things take longer than what we’re used to. A lot of in-between meetings are needed to build trust, to get things moving. This makes it more difficult to plan. And things go wrong much easier. I have to work a lot more hours than in England to achieve the same results, so it’s a good idea to add an extra day or so to your journey. However, despite everything, there are fewer cancelled meetings in Africa than in the Middle East and the Gulf States, for example.
“Also, there are no real dividing lines between evenings, weekends and leisure time, meaning you could get a call at any time on the weekend or late in the evening because everybody has the same extended working hours.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk explains that trust takes time to build and we have to bear in mind that it is a discussion and trust culture that we are not used to.
“Nobody makes quick decisions without first building up a relationship. In Sweden and England you can attend a meeting and decide on something with somebody you’ve never met before in just half an hour. Even if you could do this in Africa, it’s no guarantee that the decision is final. Your prospective client knows nothing about you or your background. It takes time and quite a few meetings before they begin to get a picture of you and your motives. They’ve had so many dubious proposals over the years that they either try to avoid getting involved or to ensure they get as much as possible out of their commitment.
“It also takes time to learn how different people work. It’s impossible to form close relationships with everybody. It depends on the individual, their experiences and background. They put up barriers against certain types of projects and foreigners. The people feel antipathy towards certain nationalities. Being Swedish is usually positive. It’s anonymous and it helps if the people in Congo, for instance, hear that I work in London and not Paris or Brussels. There are many factors that influence a meeting and navigating between all the obstacles can be difficult.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk also thinks that it is important to try to understand as much as possible prior to a meeting. Who are the people you are going to meet and how do they fit into the bigger picture?
“What sort of company or organisation is it and who are their close liaisons. The company could actually be owned by the President’s brother. Everything is all too often political, albeit under the surface. Try to find out how the organisation, company and people fit into the greater scheme of things. This will help you avoid certain areas and to understand where the prospective client comes from.
“Being formal is also important as African society is extremely formal. It’s far better to be over-formal with titles and showing respect – for instance, calling somebody with a doctorate, ’Doctor’. First names come very late on in the relationship. Even if somebody has grown up and been educated in the West, showing this kind of respect will still have a positive impact on the outcome. People you talk to may say, “I come from New York, call me Dan”, but that’s on his initiative. In Sierra Leone, where I’ve spent a lot of time, ministers and government employees are addressed by their positions rather than their names. You are your position, just like Mr. President in the USA. What you represent and what you do is more important than who you are. Being informal could easily be perceived as an affront.
“Of course, people don’t necessarily have much say in this, regardless of whether they’re presidents or ministers. They do that which the country, community or electorate demand of them or they get voted out. It’s not that much different for MPs in England, who also have to make their constituents happy to be re-elected, but in Africa it’s more extreme and quite often about the future of the country.”
Exclusive Analysis has a network of roughly 1,200 people. One person is in charge of it all and keeps regular contact with the others in the group.
“That person also helps to identify the right people in a specific country when we’re compiling a report, arranges the meeting and ensures that everybody attending the meeting are aware of who they are going to meet. Hardly anybody attends a meeting without first holding an internal meeting, where they are given a quick run-through and are made aware of what they’re expected to consider, achieve and to do after the meeting, like writing a report, for example.
“This meeting is an integral part of our operations, in both the commercial and analysis part. We must try to keep a check and be systematic to make it easier to go back and see the results achieved at different meetings.
We follow-up rapidly by contacting all the people we’ve met, even for smaller projects. To say thank you, to provide feedback and to give them the chance to change their stance. Follow-up depends on the purpose of the meeting. If it’s information gathering in, for example, Sudan, we go there to meet as many people as possible to try to get a picture of what’s happening. It’s very important to return to say that this is what we’ve understood and this is what we’ve agreed on, even if it doesn’t quite tally with what you think.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk feels that the knowledge she has acquired about conflicts and conflict resolution has influenced her way of negotiating and behaving at meetings.
“I’ve become more attentive. When sensitive things are being discussed you have to be attentive and read people’s reactions, what they think and feel about the issues and the whole situation. I think I find it easier to see the nuances and it helps me when I’m sitting in a meeting in London, for example.”
Nathalie Wlodarczyk has to adjust when coming home to Sweden to attend meetings.
“I moved early and can hardly remember what the meeting culture is like. Nobody was surprised when I took part in English meetings. On the other hand, I was genuinely surprised when I went to Stockholm for a business meeting with an insurance company. Both my colleagues and I were quite shocked, me probably a bit less than them. Swedish meeting culture is earnest and businesslike, while English meeting culture is built around humour, irony and casual chat about sport and world events. The differences in the meeting cultures made it difficult to read what we’d actually achieved. We all felt the same: this didn’t go well at all. No one cracked a smile. The atmosphere was deadly serious and the customer was obviously not interested. After a few days, to our surprise, we received an order.
“It’s extremely difficult to read people when first entering another culture. It takes a while to interpret signals. Are they just being polite? Are they really interested? What does it mean if they say yes or no?”