The Battle of Britain: Thought Leadership in Information Management

March 16, 2010
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In the London Blitz of 1940, Great Britain was staring down defeat and an imminent German invasion. With cities, industry and dockyards experiencing nightly destruction, Great Britain needed to out-think Germany. They did this through understanding the value of key indicators and command and control; I’ll explain how.

The evacuation at Dunkirk and Rommel’s advancement in Africa did not bode well for the Commonwealth. The German Luftwaffe were outnumbering and outclassing English Gladiators and Typhoons in the air and the advance into Russia was an inevitable and grand demonstration that Germany was a dominant threat to the free world. Instead of surrender, complete retreat or negotiation, Churchill was decisive in taking the stance that we more commonly and contemporarily hear as “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. I am sure that when he made this heavy decision, he got his best and brightest together in a underground bunker in London and would have said something like “right then chaps. What are we going to do about it?”

What they achieved was nothing short of brilliant. Whether by accident or design, they developed 4 maxims…

In the London Blitz of 1940, Great Britain was staring down defeat and an imminent German invasion. With cities, industry and dockyards experiencing nightly destruction, Great Britain needed to out-think Germany. They did this through understanding the value of key indicators and command and control; I’ll explain how.

The evacuation at Dunkirk and Rommel’s advancement in Africa did not bode well for the Commonwealth. The German Luftwaffe were outnumbering and outclassing English Gladiators and Typhoons in the air and the advance into Russia was an inevitable and grand demonstration that Germany was a dominant threat to the free world. Instead of surrender, complete retreat or negotiation, Churchill was decisive in taking the stance that we more commonly and contemporarily hear as “we don’t negotiate with terrorists”. I am sure that when he made this heavy decision, he got his best and brightest together in a underground bunker in London and would have said something like “right then chaps. What are we going to do about it?”

What they achieved was nothing short of brilliant. Whether by accident or design, they developed 4 maxims for information:

  • Metadata – The Ministry of Defence was very fastidious about classifying, naming and understanding data. Bletchley Park embarked on breaking the Enigma and other German codes. Today, we might call this the establishment of “a common business language“. With code and decode values and their meanings (some of which had contextual change or interpretation) the British created what would be considered a metadata repository to understand the communications data of the Germans and combine it with their own to create insight. These were facilitated by codebooks and early analogue computing devices. They had data about data and they were making the linkages to create insight for action.
  • Data integration – the study and implementation of radar to give accurate, trusted data on enemy movements enabled mapping and near-to-real time modeling of the Battle of Britain for immediate response. This war-room simulation and true command and control was arguably pivotal in the turning of the tide for Great Britain. Through data integration of radar data, on-the-ground intel and communications, the Ministry of Defence was able to triangulate and create a thorough and trusted situational awareness upon which they could look at the highest risks and mitigate them. The extension and visualisation of this is depicted in the famous film the Battle of Britain where Women’s Royal Air Force ladies move models around a map flanked by a score of communicators and officers feeding intelligence, happenings, radar data and commands into the equation (the early version of today’s Geospatial mapping). 
  • Understand What Makes Best-in-class – the British undertook to invest in the best-in-class equipment for where it counted the most. They looked at the immediate risks to them which was fighter escorted bombers annihilating their way of life, followed by a blitzkrieg assault on the ground. How do you mitigate this threat? They needed a superior fighter in numbers that could out-fight the escorts and something agile enough to get in quickly and take down bombers before they can off-load their deadly payload. These aircraft needed to be ready, repaired, maintained and deployed at a moment’s notice to patrol areas / patrol during times of risk and respond to confirmed threats. The British would invest a significant part of their war effort on this capability. Enter the Spitfire and the men who flew them, in all their glory.  Easy to fly, easy to repair and deadly in the air.  Radios in each plane and disciplined communications through a common language was the mechanism they used to feed information back to the war room on how this threat mitigation was performing.

These four maxims of information management; metadata; data integration; and best in class, galvanised the strategy that stopped the Germans from being able to use their superior man-power to march jack-boots up and down Trafalgar Square.

With Churchill and his war cabinet in the war room, they created an environment of near-to-real time information management and situational awareness. This competitive edge was the cornerstone of their role in defending their nation and ultimately playing their alliance role in winning the Second World War.

With war-rooms being replaced by dashboards and sophisticated Data Warehouse, analytics and intelligence technologies, it shows us that the demand and principles are enduring. As time has moved on over 60 years of innovation, the enabling technology used by Teradata means you don’t need a cast of thousands manually participating to provide such insights and the greater awareness of having more than just the bare minimum of data, but rather as much information that is of value. Best in class, integrated data and understanding of the data you use for decisions and insights is what Teradata provides to its customers today.

I am still very impressed that the British came up with and augmenting these concepts without the enabling technologies of today, yet it was possible to create such a detailed and decisive situational awareness. For the future of information management and our understanding of it, the Battle of Britain really does show how pioneers evolved some of the information maxims of today; “so much is owed by so many to so few” and I am not just talking about the pilots!

 

David Bremstaller