Business Intelligence Radar: Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain

What is Business Intelligence?

It’s the set of tools, abilities, and data required to create a picture of the world and how your organization operates in that world. In building your business intelligence capabilities, you can learn a lot by looking at a historical precedent – the rise of radar detection capabilities – and applying it to your problems of getting to your data.

The Battle of Britain – 1940

The fate of the western world was largely determined by the actions of a few people in Britain in the late summer and early fall of 1940.  Poland had fallen, Belgium had fallen, France had fallen. Great Britain was next. Prime Minister Winston Churchill lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt for help. But, Roosevelt was reluctant to fully support a Britain that looked doomed to defeat.

Air power had come into its own and the Nazis planned to use it to clear the way. Key to their plan was destroying Britain’s air force. Once it was gone, a seaborne attack would follow.

Winston Churchill knew what was coming. The air assault started in July with attacks on convoys in the English Channel. Shortly thereafter, relentless attacks on the airfields. The British airmen were outnumbered and exhausted.

Eventually, they were also victorious. The Nazis gave up their plans for invading Britain and focused their attention on Russia. But why?

A number of factors led to Britain’s success. One especially important asset was the use of radar detection. Britain was an early innovator in radar and early warning technologies. But, as we will see, radar alone couldn’t win battles.

Pearl Harbor – December 7, 1941

Around 7 am on the 7th of December 1941, the Japanese arrived. In a brilliant piece of seamanship and aviation skill, they snuck up on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A few hours later, the US fleet lay in shambles.  While a few US fighters managed to take off and tangle with the attackers, their effect was negligible.

After the attack, US President Franklin Roosevelt gave a stirring speech that contained the following, memorable line, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

This was over a year since America’s ally, Britain, had prevailed, with the help of radar, in the Battle of Britain. The Americans also had radar. In fact, American radar detected the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So, why was America so soundly defeated at Pearl Harbor?

The answer lies not in the radar system, but in the military’s inability to take the data from radar, assemble it into a meaningful picture, and then act on the result. The British had developed an entire information network that gathered data from radar and other sources, assembled it at a central point, and then distributed it as necessary to commanders in the field. Each member of the team knew their job and knew how to use the information delivered to them.

At Pearl Harbor, on the other hand, the Americans hadn’t built the information infrastructure. They captured the raw data, but they didn’t have the mechanisms for rapidly assembling that data into a coherent picture. And, they certainly didn’t have the plans in place to act on that picture.

Business Intelligence

This brings us to the concept of business intelligence (BI). What makes for effective BI? It’s the ability to gather the relevant data, integrate it into a coherent picture of reality, and the processes necessary to execute based on what that picture shows.

In large part, organizations already have the data — they have the radar. Where? In their operational systems. In the ERP, sales, manufacturing, legal, HR, and other systems that run the business on a day to day basis. Each entry, each transaction provides a pixel in the overall picture.

But, most organizations are more like the Americans in 1941 than the British in 1940 — they don’t have an integrated view of that data and they don’t have business processes in place to take advantage of the insights they might gather.

Which leaves me with a question for you: 1940 Britain or 1941 America? Where are you?

My Recommendation

As you build out your BI infrastructure, make sure that you not only capture data but that you also have the structures in place to build on what your BI shows you. In many cases, this means making sure you have business processes in place that “listen” to the pings and then act accordingly. For example, perhaps declining sales volume from a key customer represents a “ping”. Do you have the structures in place to see this ping? To pass this information onto the folks who can act on it? To actually take some action?

Are you, like me, interested in the odd combination of history, aviation and business intelligence? Let me know your thoughts!

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