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The British army steals a march in information management
Charlie Lane of Information Exploitation (IE) part of the Government Gateway development team, talks to PCI's Crispin Coulson about how they are helping the British Army to apply Information Management tools to implement its 'business strategy'and how IT companies can learn and benefit from this experience.
The British Army is currently moving from a War to a peace-keeping operation in Afghanistan and employing some of the most sophisticated technology available today. Any failure of these systems is not just the inconvenience of a couple of hours downtime as it would be in a commercial environment, it's the difference between life and death.
Public perception of the Army may have changed little over the past thirty years but, the Army itself has changed dramatically, particularly in the management of the huge volumes of information it handles on a daily basis, often in battlefield situations. Particular sectors such as stockbroking, where any systems failures or inadequacies can cost many millions of pounds and the commercial world generally, facing the ever-increasing competition of global trading, could certainly learn from the Army's use of technology in implementing its 'business strategy'. Today's Army professionals' IT competency is as important as their traditional military skills. Laptops are essential tools in the battle space and getting the right information, accurately, at the right time, presented in the right format is not only a matter of life and death, it could also affect the shape of the world for future generations. The effective exploitation of all sources of information within any enterprise is critical to real improvement and the same principles apply right across the commercial and Defence industries.
The Defence industry recognises this fact and invests considerable amounts of money every year refining its information systems and identifying and exploiting the latest technologies to develop robust solutions to extremely complex information management challenges. LtGen John Reith, UK Joint Force Commander for Operation Veritas
(Afghanistan) said recently that the secret of better decision making was 'a combination of well-presented information and the application of lateral thinking'. This is just as true in the commercial sector as it is in Defence.
The Army's principal requirements of speed, reliability, security and accuracy within its information systems are common to several other industry sectors, particularly the Financial sector, and it makes perfect sense for these industries to adopt the same approach and benefit from their investment and expertise.  People won't die, for instance, if the transactions in their bank accounts were regularly corrupted but, in today's highly competitive commercial environment, they would simply take their custom elsewhere. I also believe, however, that the Defence industry could learn a lot from the commercial sector.
My company is an information systems specialist working across the Defence, public and commercial sectors. If you asked me whether the Defence Industry was aware of the various processes commercial organisations have to deal with, I would say, 'yes'.  If you then asked me whether they understood and exploited the potential for applying these processes, the answer would be 'no'.
No large-scale information management system can improve an enterprise's performance unless you first unravel the organisational complexity and define the correct policies and procedures. So, the consultancy that precedes the system design and implementation aligning technology to the business strategy is, therefore, critical to the efficiency of the finished system. To deal with rapid and high volume of information, you obviously need automation and the volume of information and availability is being increased through automation. The quality and effectiveness of an information system, however, is governed by the quality and relevance of the information it holds and the efficiency and accuracy of its processing and dissemination.
The starting point is to establish who needs information, what information they need and where it is available and the key to effective information management is that each particular piece of information is the right information and only those who need it, receive it, again presented in a relevant format.
Our principal area of expertise is delivering organisational success through the strategic alignment of business processes, helping organisations minimise risk and identify and effectively exploit all their sources of information.  We don't build the systems ourselves but we develop a storyboard which we then use to convey the requirements to the system providers, whether they are IE strategic partners, the customer's supplier, or one of our sister companies.
In the Army the integrity of its information is particularly critical.  It has to be the right information otherwise the wrong decisions are taken and can lead to loss of life. Today, we all depend much more on the rapid flow of information and in the Army, information management is being passed out into the field where information is needed most.  The Army relies on dynamic data as opposed to encyclopaedic data, which adds a level of complexity if this is to be disseminated in real time.
Much of our work with the Army is in aligning applications to the 'businesses' they support. The Armed Forces has a long tradition of single-service mentality and even within the individual services they are deep-seated divisions. We are moving very rapidly towards a joint force capability so this attitude must be altered and the recent Strategic Defence Review has now centralised procurement, which is a major step in the right direction. And, one of the most recent projects we were involved in was to promote Army Information Management and Application Coherence to help rationalise IS application development within a Joint Forces and Defence context.
Another of our major projects was on Battlefield Engagement Systems, prompted by concern that a lack of a defined strategy was resulting in a lack of coherence across and within Battlefield Information System Application (BISA) programmes. This will inevitably lead to misalignment between applications and the businesses they support and an inability to transfer data and information effectively between battlefield applications.
The requirements for receiving, communicating and recording of information in the battle space are enormous. The legal documentation alone is considerable as the Rules of Engagement become increasingly complicated. Laptop systems now provide detailed guidance in combat situations on such vital issues as how to differentiate fast between potential 'hostiles' and 'non-hostiles'.
As in the commercial sector, there is far more documented accountability today but every aspect of operations has to be recorded immediately in a 'war diary', to provide an instant audit trail. The constant risk of the physical destruction of individual pieces of equipment means that all the dynamic information has to be carefully replicated. The efficiency of any information system is limited by the skills of the operator and one of the key factors the Army has had to address is skills 'fade'. No matter how good your training is, your skills will fade if you don't use them regularly and when forces are mobilised at very short notice, they simply haven't time to go back to the classroom to brush up their IT skills. Distance learning is, therefore, widely and successfully used and all IS applications are designed with intuitive GUIs to look the same and function in the same way.  This approach is equally effective in minimising merger and acquisition upheaval and in orchestrating moves towards globalisation.
There are many similarities today between the Defence and other industry requirements - Defence has to operate much more like a large commercial enterprise and large commercial enterprises have to maintain a highly competitive edge in order to survive let alone succeed. Each has experience and expertise that would be very useful to the other even though this may not be immediately apparent. Remember, though, that the biggest hurdles within any large organisation, whether in the Defence or any other sector, are cultural and these, by definition, apply across the whole enterprise. The secret of success is well-defined processes and the first step must be to identify goals and accurately define the business processes by examining organisational structure, roles and responsibilities.
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