3 ways data has transformed the British Army

1. The first enterprise-wide strategic management information pack for the main board

The British Army has traditionally placed the hard-won experience of its senior officers at the heart of its decision-making process. Recognising that the contemporary military operating environment has grown exponentially in terms of complexity, we set about designing and creating a mechanism for sharing the most important board-level data.

I worked in close collaboration with all of the board members to understand their most pressing business needs and mission-critical information. Drawing on this knowledge, we have enabled genuine strategic insight and understanding by harnessing data from a range of disparate sources.

Through championing modern data visualisation techniques, we have ensured that the most important data is rendered accessible and understandable to busy board members. As a result, performance management has become more objective and focused, and the quality of decisions has improved, driving efficiencies and enabling crucial insight into critical business areas.

General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the general staff (head of the British Army), placed a mandate on me to enable evidence-based decision-making.

The initial part of this challenge was to design a management information pack that is digestible for a board. It would be very easy to get a management information pack that runs into hundreds of pages, and I have to confess my early attempts were something like that. The really important bit that I found was to simplify, simplify, simplify, so that you really drive at the essentials of what is important to the army’s senior leadership.

Where I think we’re winning the cultural change to complement that hard-won operational experience is among the army leaders who are now refining the requirement from evidence-based decision-making to evidence-prompted question posing, which is a different kettle of fish.

In other words, they’re taking the evidence presented to them and, exploiting the data, they’re asking: what does this tell us? What do we need to do next? And what questions can we pose of ourselves that will improve what we do, how we do it and how we organise, lead and manage ourselves?

In short, I’m adding a touch of science to the art of decision-making.

>See also: The UK’s top 50 data leaders 2017

2. Predictive analytics to support operational effectiveness

One of the key outputs of the British Army is to generate military forces that are held ‘at readiness’ to deploy anywhere in the world in times of crisis. Designing, training, equipping, manning and supporting these force packages is a hugely complex endeavour, which is managed and cohered at enterprise level.

One of the areas we are looking at is to understand the fullest picture we can get of our readiness to deploy, particularly at short notice. Soldiers and their equipment, training and support are all bundled together into a package of capabilities that are used for a particular purpose, whether that is deploying to hot and dusty places, exercising in Canada, Kenya and Europe, or supporting our country’s civil authorities, whether filling sandbags to help flood defences on the Somerset Levels or, most recently, deploying in support of our police forces in the fight against terrorism.

It is vital to us to have an accurate picture of the ability of any given force package to be taken from dispersed bases throughout the UK and to arrive in a place where it can be effective: either the ports or airports from which they leave the country or a deployment inside the country if that’s what the government calls us to do.

We have piloted a groundbreaking predictive analytics capability that takes a huge variety of input metrics and models the readiness of each element of the force, to establish whether it would be able to achieve its mandated deployability within the deadlines required.

This had previously been done based on subjective judgement and exhaustive analogue procedures. Now, the army has at its disposal much more sophisticated data-led processes to add confidence to its assessments of readiness and cue proactive remedial action where shortfalls are identified.

We have worked in close partnership with software and professional services provided by SAS, and we’ve done that throughout the range of analytics capabilities, whether that’s more rearwards, descriptive and diagnostic analytics or looking at new challenges through predictive and even prescriptive analytics.

The predictive nature of the analytics was to take a whole range of data that we have about the state of those forces – their training, equipment, support and manpower – and to extrapolate the trends and develop some models that allow us to predict whether they will meet their readiness timelines. This insight is allowing us to improve our deployment and tasking processes.

So now the British Army is harnessing data to enable essential improvements in its core business of generating forces to defend the country.

See also: Data 50 Awards 2017: winners revealed

3. Creating a data culture

The British Army has always had a strong heritage of innovation, from weapon systems to battlefield medicine. But arguably it has been slower than some other areas of society to adopt widespread digital practices.

As its first chief data officer, I have conducted extensive business engagement, both within the army and with wider stakeholders in defence and elsewhere. This ‘data speed dating’ has helped me to identify best practices from a diverse source of data-driven organisations. Armed with this knowledge, I have tirelessly championed the need for cultural and behavioural change to be synchronised with technology initiatives.

We have helped senior leaders to recognise the centrality of data in their business areas and the imperative to take ownership of their data and improve its quality and protection, winning the endorsement of the board in the process.

When trying to change a culture, you get a spectrum of reactions from across the cohort of senior leaders. You have some who will retain a healthy cynicism and will reserve judgement until you can prove your case. You’ll get others who understand the potential of data sooner. The trick is to turn the conversation into one where data moves to the heart of their area of the business.

We’re not asking them to make a leap of faith; we’re working with the grain of whatever it is they do already, but showing how a better level of insight derived from data can complement that hard-won experience they have and help them generate insights they wouldn’t otherwise have.

That gives them confidence to adopt data as a concept and to utilise the insights you can derive from that. Fundamentally, what we’re saying to our senior leaders is: you don’t have to relinquish ownership to see how harnessing data can be transformational to the way that you do business.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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