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Finding Humanity in Big Data

"The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."

Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. The CAOC is comprised of a joint and coalition team that executes day-to-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and de-confliction of weapon systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang)

At the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I was assigned as the Senior Intelligence Officer for the 1st Battlefield Coordination Detachment (1st BCD) at the Combined Air Operations Center on Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.  As the name of our unit implies, our mission was to coordinate ground and air operations for the invasion of Iraq.  This was a monumental task and the amount of information that passed through our desks was almost unfathomable.  It is difficult to paint a complete picture, but we were coordinating the movement of two entire Armies; with hundreds of thousands of ground troops, from multiple nations; hundreds of air assets, ranging from combat, intelligence, refueling, command/control and troop transport aircraft to Army helicopters and drones.  On top of all that, everything was constantly and simultaneously moving.  Talk about big data.

In order to monitor all this activity, we had no less than about 15 separate battlefield operations systems daisy-chained together, but with fewer than that many soldiers on shift to operate all the computers.  Information was flying across the screens faster than the ticker at the New York Stock Exchange.  The Combined Air Force Component Command used a system of kill boxes to coordinate air interdiction targets on the battlefield and it was the 1st BCD’s mission to deconflict fires between the ground and air component commands.  The air and ground components agreed to open a certain kill box north of Baghdad, which meant that everyone agreed there were no friendly forces in the area.  However, out of the thousands of icons representing maneuver forces on the ground, I noticed a small blue blip on the screen.  Fortunately, just before the invasion, the Army fielded the Blue Force Tracking system, which was an emitter to show where units were located.  I did a quick investigation and discovered a U.S. Special Operations Detachment operating well forward of the main battle area (as Green Berets are supposed to do), so I denied opening the kill box.  If the Blue Force Tracking system was not fielded, if one of the battlefield operations systems did not work properly, and if I stepped away from my station for a few minutes, that SOF detachment would likely have been destroyed.  There is perhaps nothing more tragic in war than friendly or civilian casualties.

In business, it is hard to detect the human element in big data.  We tend to focus on processing massive amounts of information as quickly as possible.  However, as leaders we must look at our systems from the customers’ perspective.  Customers have a lot of online choices these days, but a human touch goes a long way to earning lasting loyalty.  An occasional personal note or phone call to a customer following an online transaction adds humanity to big data; especially if there is a negative experience.  People see that and know the company values them as a person, rather than just a transaction or anonymous account number.

Ascension has the expertise to assist your company in customer relationship management.  We can help your company with the transformation between technology and cultural changes.

By John Winters, Colonel U.S. Army {Retired}

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