Puzzling pieces together - and why it matters

[date-stamp]Recently, a plane from Malaysia Airlines (flight MH370) went missing, and a search for the plane was started. The exact location of the plane could not be identified, and the route of the plane from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing crossed the borders of many countries. Initially, the search for the plane was hampered by a lack of coordination between countries where the plane could have passed over or crashed. Many countries have advanced radar capabilities, which could have shown where the plane could be, but an unwillingness to share data with other countries has hampered the investigation. They simply do not want to show to the world what they are capable of tracking and how far away, since that would give away an advantage in any future conflict. When puzzling pieces together in order to get the full picture, an inability or unwillingness to share data is unconstructive and leads to an incomplete picture. This is an analogy to how data is shared (and not shared) in and between businesses as well - if there is some data missing then it’s impossible to get the full picture. The effects are just like for flight MH370: A critical situation arises with the potential loss of lives as a result. Or in the business world, a loss of opportunity and money. How can these situations be handled better?


1. Unwillingness or inability to share data?

Why are some people unwilling to share their data? It could be because of secrecy; they do not want anyone to know that they have this data. Given the scenario above, military concerns may affect the decision to not broadcast that a country has advanced military capabilities. For businesses, they certainly do not want to share data with competitors. But sharing data with a different department in the same company…that must be possible, right? Not always so-internal politics and competition may hamper such sharing of data, which would be beneficial for the company as a whole.

Within a company, it is quite normal that many applications are unable to talk to each other. They are simply not able to exchange information. Manual data transfer can be done by a person punching in numbers and text, but this is horribly inefficient. In a crisis, like with the missing plane and where people’s lives are at stake, it can be done. However, as part of an information sharing process in a company, it is not viable at all; applications must be able to talk with each other and exchange information without such direct human intervention as punching in information manually.

Standardization of data formats have been tried, but today most applications come with an Application Programming Interface (API) or a ready-made module that enables two applications to exchange information. So most applications, at least modern ones, are technically able to exchange applications. The problem is normally political or not utilizing the potential in the tools being used.


2. Compatibility - can you understand me if I talk to you?

The missing Malaysian plane was tracked by Inmarsat satellites, and Inmarsat knew that the plane flew for hours after it went missing. Moreover, Inmarsat told Malaysian authorities this, but they did not act on this information. It took another three days until they acknowledged that the plane had continued flying for hours, and then widened the search area. Why? We can only wonder at this time, but an inability to process new information from a (for them) unknown source may have been the problem.

Processing information from previously unknown sources should not be a problem if the source is credible. And why should Inmarsat, a leading UK satellite company, be lying or giving inaccurate information? No apparent reason for that. So considering all available, credible information is something that should have been done in this case.

This is also a lesson for companies. Information from sources that were previously unknown, like a Twitter account or blogger talking about a particular topic, may be worth looking into and analyzing. Say your company has released a new product, and think all is well because you don’t get any support requests? Well, people may be fuming on Twitter or in blogs about your new release and you don’t know about it. That’s a problem. These people are clearly using your product or know someone who has if they’re talking about your product. They’re your customers, and customers’ needs to be listened to. Not everyone on Twitter or Facebook is a credible source of information though, but the mood and attitude towards your company and product can be read from social media platforms like these.

Many companies have no way of filtering out information from social media that is relevant to them, from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and all the others. But there are tools that offer this capability, but they’re not always well known. Such tools help in acquiring the information needed and interpreting it, but taking an action based on it is a different matter. So it’s technically possible; but again, the adoption rate of such tools is not as it should be.


3. Hidden motives - what are you trying to hide and why?

Information that is known is not always acted on. Malaysia knew that the plane had continued flying, but they still continued searching for it at the place where they lost contact with it. It’s puzzling that they did this, what a waste of time and resources when they were trying to determine what happened to a plane with over 200 persons aboard.

Taking action based on known information is something that should be done as a reaction to the information becoming known (event-based reaction). If you know sales are down 30%, you take an action to correct it. Same thing with information about your competitor’s new product; if there’s a killer new feature in there, you may want to counter that feature with your own similar (or better) feature. But there are dozens of events similar to these that are just bypassed and forgotten, which (if an action had been taken based on them) could have improved profitability and productivity in your company.

So why is there a lack of action? In some cases, someone is withholding information or simply does not think that this information is important for anyone else. Therefore, it’s not shared. This is the problem with manual decision-making when it comes to sharing data: what to share and what not? The solution is to automate it, and giving employees access to a wide array of information, not just what someone thinks they have to have access to, but everything that is not a company secret or private information. All other information should be available, and managed in such a way that the relevant pieces of information are easily available for an employee when working on a particular topic.

An unwillingness to share data is something else though. If there’s no will, there’s no way to do it. The reasons for this are normally situation-specific. Like the scenario where military considerations stops countries from sharing radar data with Malaysia and the rest of the world.


4. Puzzling the pieces together

The Malaysian plane went missing when it crossed from one country to another. Therefore, information from multiple sources (in this case, multiple countries) had to be puzzled together in order to figure out what happened with the missing plane. Without information from multiple sources, it will not be possible to come to a conclusion.

Creating an environment where unclassified information flows freely can help avoid situations where not all pieces can be puzzled together. The more pieces missing, the more inaccurate the picture is.

Therefore, the main thing is to know what is going on, both inside your company and outside, and then take action based on this knowledge.


Picture by Ercan Karakas [GFDL or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons