WW2 Atlantic convoy

I frequently use an analogy of comparing how your organisation ‘does data’ as a machine, but have recently started using a nautical analogy as an extension of this.

Which of the following typifies how your organisation delivers data related activities?

  • Aircraft carrier
  • Convoy
  • Yacht race
  • Pedalos

Okay, lets explore these further:

  • An aircraft carrier is a large vessel that can be likened to a floating city. Activities on board are controlled and coordinated by the Captain and his team. A number of aircraft and helicopters are operated that deliver missions closely coordinated by a control centre on the carrier. These aircraft then return to the carrier on completion of their mission
  • Atlantic convoys in WW2 included many ships operating autonomously following a pre-planned course across the ocean. Escort vessels would provide protection at the perimeter of the convoy and rapidly move to the scene of any problem
  • A round-the-world yacht race will have many yachts competing with the aim of being the first to go round the world. Rules stipulate particular way points that must be passed, but otherwise each autonomous yacht chooses their own course based on sea and wind conditions. If they can gain a place in the race by cutting in front of a rival, then they will do so (if they can do it safely). The only exception to this is if a yacht gets into serious trouble, then rival yachts will divert to rescue the crew of the stricken yacht
  • Finally, pedalos are a popular tourist attraction where 2-4 people use a boat powered by paddle wheels driven by pedals. They have a notorious tendency not to go in a straight line and can mean one person does most of the work whilst others put in much less effort. You typically don’t use a pedalo to go long distances and tend to expend lots of energy going round in circles and splashing each other

The data equivalents could be viewed as follows:

  • The aircraft carrier analogy illustrates an organisation where all data related activities are tightly controlled. Any development or data improvement activities are in turn tightly controlled with outputs incorporated by the organisation once they have been completed. There is little scope for independent/ empowered activities and innovation. Few organisations of any size would be able to operate like this, perhaps smaller organisations may be able to do so, but it may not be desirable.
  • The convoy analogy illustrates an organisation where teams have autonomy to deliver results that meet the organisational goals and objectives. Depending on conditions, there may need to a change of direction, but the individual units of the convoy would change to this new direction. As data quality issues arise, the data governance frigates rush in to assess and resolve these issues.
  • Organisations behaving like a yacht race experience competition between autonomous teams, which may be to the detriment of some teams. The overall direction has been set and individual teams are working to following this direction, however, cooperation between teams to exploit synergies and efficiencies may be a rarity. Some organisations heavily promoting ‘agile’ approaches my experience similar issues
  • An organisation behaving like the pedalo analogy is struggling to go in any consistent direction. Lots of staff are feverishly busy doing things, but inefficiently and with little coordination leading to exhaustion and frustration

Of these analogies, the convoy analogy is the one closest to the way an effective organisation should operate – just like the convoys in WW2, they can support achieving objectives in challenging times. Key factors to make your convoy approach successful:

  • Clarity of direction – what are the organisations targets and objectives?
  • Defined activities/ processes – increasing understanding of how the organisation/ convoy functions thereby preventing gaps and overlaps of role
  • Clarity of role – which position are you in the convoy? Should you ‘hold position’ or are you empowered to troubleshoot
  • Rules of engagement – what to do (and when) if circumstances change
  • Understanding good practice – reference to external standards and comparator organisations to understand which configurations of organisation/ convoy work best
  • Sharing good practice – if one team develops a better way to work, they can share it with others to keep all on track and up to speed
  • Support each other – if one team is struggling, others can assist to help keep the organisation/convoy on track and prevent any stragglers being left behind and sustain overall performance

Are your data activities working like a convoy?

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