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  • Writer's picturePaul

Reconnoiter The Problem



A short, cryptic note reported in Scientific America Magazine (December 12, 1914) - “Survey expedition of Southern Palestine. – A considerable amount of surveying and exploration has recently been done along the southern frontier of Palestine under the auspices of the Palestine Exploitation Fund. Headed by Captain S.F. Newcombe R.R., and two archaeologists from the British Museum who have surveyed and mapped the whole region except a small area around Akaba where the Ottoman authorities refused the necessary permission”.

“Survey expedition”? Not quite, it was an intelligence gathering mission, the reconnoitering of a perceived problem area, just simple spy work. Using legitimate archaeologists from the British Museum for the Allied war effort in World War I was commonplace in Africa and the Middle East. The “two archaeologists” included a young (and bona fide) archaeologist who had graduated from Oxford just four years earlier. His name was Thomas Edward Lawrence, but by the end of World War I he had another name. Lawrence of Arabia.

One of the most inspiring scenes in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole in the title role, is the charge across the open field as the Arab tribes attacked the Ottoman defended port city of Akaba (located on the Red Sea in modern day Jordan). As described above this was not a simple surprise attack based on luck; instead, it was the careful reconnoitering of an avenue of approach to a vital logistics hub used by the British enemy’s allies or a line of departure for an enemy attack against one of Britain’s most important strategic locations.


T. E. Lawrence inspired and led the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Empire, earning him worldwide fame. He had spent several years before the war traveling throughout and studying archaeological sites in the Ottoman Empire. With the outbreak of war, he joined the British Army and moved into intelligence work in Egypt. He became a valued advisor to the British and the Arabs because of his language capability (Arab and Turkish), cultural knowledge and keen diplomatic skills. His willingness to help the Arabs win freedom from Ottoman domination coalesced a group of warring tribes into an organized guerrilla army that could strike in various places all at one time.

The mapping mission to Palestine was to assess the desert lands between the southern borders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the Suez Canal that ran through British-occupied Egypt. The canal was a vital strategic link between Britain and the most crucial colony in its Empire, India. As war broke out in August 1914, nobody knew if the Ottoman Turks would stay neutral or, as it increasingly seemed, join with the Germans and Austrians. It was necessary to find out if it was possible to field and move an army across the desert to attack the Suez Canal. The fear was not misplaced, in February 1915 an army of 15,000 Ottoman and German troops attacked but failed to capture the Suez Canal.

The Ottoman Government would clearly oppose any official foreign government-sponsored mapping missions, so a realistic cover story was needed. In the espionage arena, spies need cover for status (why am I here) and cover for action (why am I doing what I am doing). The perfect cover for this mapping operation was the Palestine Exploration Fund, which had been performing legitimate biblical archaeology since 1865 and still does.

As noted the Ottoman army’s position, strength and organization could not be ascertained on the mapping expedition. So two and a half years later (July 1917), as the Arab tribes planned to carry out the operation a new enemy estimate was required using a more traditional intelligence collection method. Recruited spies from the various ships that resupplied the army and exported regional agriculture products.


I have always enjoyed going back and skimming through Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.” Recently while going through several other accounts of the events in the Middle East during World War I while drafting another “Ward Room Leaders Library” on Lawrence, I came across the Palestine terrain assessment and the intelligence reports out of Aqaba. As I read through them again, I began to see similar concepts that are used in everyday business assessments regarding market evaluation, product introduction, and customer want.

Just like the reconnoitering mission and the spy’s reports, an analysis of a market is based on open source information, media, feedback from visitors/customers and the other company personnel. Using two well-known and recognized business analysis formats let’s look at Lawrence’s assessment of the terrain and his intelligence reports as compared to a recent BMW introduction of a new product line:

a. SWOT - Lawrence (L) & BMW (B)

Strength: L - motivated army, knows the terrain, knows the enemy and goal driven

Strength: B - target the American market desire for BMW luxury, sports car’s and SUV’s in the X6 model (sports activity coupe)

Weakness: L - Poorly armed, limited training and some undisciplined behavior

Weakness: B – A new product balanced between a sports car and SUV is new terrain and new vehicles invariably have issues for the first years of production

Opportunity: L – the desert approach is deemed unusable; thus surprise is key

Opportunity: B – create a brand-new market and dominate it for 5 to 10 years

Threats: L – Aqaba could be reinforced, reports could be wrong or the Arab force exposed and surprise removed

Threats – B - “Remember the Edsel” more than one market has been misread, think “New Coke”

b. VRIO - Lawrence (L) & BMW (B)

Value: L - The value in capturing Aqaba is security for British operations on the ground, in the air, on and under the Red Sea

Value: B - Creating a new market and dominating it for an extended period can be a game changer for business and a status symbol for customers

Rarity: L - The surprise attack of a presumed small undisciplined army using a desert crossing is rare and unexpected.

Rarity: B - Like the Chevy Corvette, Ford Mustang, the X6 created a new concept of a cool sports car, but with the AWD of an SUV and cargo carrier capability

Imitability: L - The German/Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal in 1915 with a modern logistical line proved the desert could be crossed, but also appeared to indicate that it was a decimating move to the effectiveness of an army once it arrived and needed to go directly into battle.

Imitability: B - The X6 was introduced in 2009, and Mercedes Benz was not able to introduce a competitor model, the GLC Coupe, until 2015 while other luxury brands still have nor similar designed response

Organization: L – A key to Lawrence’s success was his knowledge of the people, the culture and the leadership of the Arab tribes. By the time World War I began, the Ottomans had abandoned their successful multicultural formula and instead instituted a “Turkification” policy that made Turkish the official language in schools, the army, and government. The Arab tribes who made up over 55% of the empire’s 25 million subjects were furious. The Arabs formed secret nationalist societies and contacted the Emir of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, asking for support in an uprising. Hussein agreed and sent his eldest son, Abdullah, to link up with Arab nationalists in Syria, and then to Cairo to ask the British to aid an Arab uprising. Lawrence was present in those meeting and formulated his planning and organizational structure based on what he knew and what he learned from Abdullah. A new front on the enemy lines would draw resources from Europe and Africa, which was essential to British planning, operations and organizational realignment of their limited resources in the region

Organization: B – A 2013 MSNBC documentary identified the BMW X6 team who were tasked to come up with the sports activity coupe (SAC) that crossbred a sports sedan with an SUV. Their organization realigned how BMW had approached the U.S. market in the past and how to introduce the SAC concept. Sales for the X6 jumped in 2012 which brought about the X4 (a smaller version of the X6) in 2014. This market approach has made the X6 and X4 the best-selling SAC in North America and Europe. According to several car magazines, BMW is currently looking to introduce an aggressive and robust X8 in 2020 using the same organizational strategy.

The secret to success in war, in business, drafting a table of organization s to reconnoiter the problem areas, know the ground, know the people, know the culture and know your ability to deliver on promises.

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