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It’s been a busy summer here at Dryad whilst the Somalis were weather bound. The South West Monsoon has now all but withdrawn; the whole Indian Ocean is open for business and we are ready to come out fighting with a new ops room to support our efforts. This is our 4th move since operations began in 2007, so this blog is a reflection on what we have learned in evolving an operations room for a commercial environment.
My purpose in doing this is to lay bare the fragility and compromise of minimal ops room structure and most importantly, to show where the fragility can be underpinned and how to achieve best practice. The information should be useful for both security companies setting up ops to ensure they give an adequate service to their teams and for shipping companies looking to analyse exactly what a company means when they say that they have an ops room or 24 hour operational support.
It’s probably most honest to start with where Dryad came from 4 years ago. When I first started the company, myself and a fellow Royal Navy Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) formed the full extent of the operations staff. We would write intelligence by day and take phone calls by night starting at around 0200. At that point our verbal communication with clients and intelligence sources was entirely by mobile phone. My partner would be on duty one day and I would be on duty the next. Theoretically, we were 24/7/365. My study at home was our place of work. It had maps and charts,BBC news 24 and local time clocks. It was, theoretically, an ops room. As PWOs we knew better. It grated. We had both been PWOs in cutting edge Type 23 Frigates and we knew that my study was no ops room. An ops room is a very finely balanced information machine and a room with maps, clocks and BBC News 24 is not even close. The naked truth however, was that despite the fact we knew better, as a start up company, it was all we could afford.
The Royal Navy generic term for the magic that happens in an ops room is the ‘Action Information Organisation’ or AIO. An ops room is a carefully designed data sharing network that handles voice and digital data according to specific work flows. The ‘hardware’ of an AIO is a knowledge management system (knowing what you know); a geospatial display system (a map); data and voice communications (email and telephone). The ‘software’ is careful system design and very well thought out operational processes. Like in a computing system, the software is the REALLY clever and important bit. Without this software our ‘intelligence’ would be little more than aggregated information and since anyone can aggregate the data themselves, our product would be worthless. The lack of sophisticated operational process is less of a problem for a physical security company than for an intelligence provider but its absence means chaos for their operations and poor support to their teams.
The way we were operating in the early days represents the way that a great number of small security companies operate every day. The routine of running a nominal 24/7 ops room in this way is both busy and tiring but is ultimately manageable. However, the critical weakness is its fragility. If the duty officer was on another call; driving through the New Forest or a tunnel; having a shower; on the toilet; has a mouthful of sandwich or any combination of the above then there is potential to miss a call. The consequences of missing a call range from a miffed client right through to receiving an answer phone message with gunfire in the background. Either way, this is bad news.
The best method of mitigating the fragility of mobile phone networks is to use a non geographic (0845) number that patches through to one mobile and then to another until someone picks up. Or doesn’t. The ultimate answer to endless ringing or answerphones for urgent calls is a 24/7 call answering service. Missed calls are patched to a call centre who answers the phone using the company name as though the receptionist was part of the company. Today, we find this system is a useful fall back for the phones of senior management on routine business but (except in extremis) it is not suitable for operational calls.
The information flow in a small company depends on the capability of the individuals and their workload. We were very experienced in the flow of operational information and had common professional training and experience. Even so, regular briefings and solid, procedural handovers were a must. Even so, when workload became far higher our ability to conduct deep research AND keep up to date with the day to day movement of vessels became stretched. Our working day started at 0700 and ended at 2200 before a night of phone calls. Again, this workload is sustainable but only for a short period. You may even call it a rite of passage for a start up company. But after 6 months of heavy workload, 7 days a week, efficiency drops off sharply. If the business model works correctly then a small company should have more staff before this occurs.
The flow of digital information is also a critical point of failure. As an intelligence company, information feeds our intelligence cycle. We know from experience that it is possible to quickly become overloaded with ‘information noise’. RSS feeds are very easy to subscribe to but in terms of intelligence value they are rarely useful. Beware of ‘intelligence’ providers offering news brands (e.g. BBC / Al Jazera) RSS feeds as ‘intelligence’ – often it is just noise.
In fact, it was my experience of information noise that prompted my decision to start an intelligence company. The photo here shows me in the operations room of a ship during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was the officer in charge of the mine hunting effort and yet I was distracted by thick piles of ‘intelligence support’ that distracted me from my job. The reading log you can see in front of me was reading for a 6 hour period. One of the important AIO lessons from Iraq was that more is not always better…
So – my formative relationship with intelligence (and maritime asymmetric My business partner is now a professional helicopter pilot and friend of the company and Dryad better resembles the RN AIO best practice model. Intelligence and maritime security operations management are our core competencies and our operations room is our principal ‘machine’ to produce our products and provide our service. This being the case, we have a great interest in perfecting it given our military and commercial experience.
As I said at the start of this post; an ops room is an information machine; a system of sub systems of communication. The first challenge is to understand the whole business process; from an enquiry, through the decision making phase andoperational support up to and including after care. A consistently good customer experience is as important to the viability of the business as the integrity of the intelligence. The commercial challenge is to connect business administration and customer experience to sound operational practices. The operational challenge is much more familiar to us as ex warfare officers – the connection of Operational and Tactical data as well as the flow of information between departments and up to the management. Without giving away our competitive advantages, the system architecture; Information Technology (specifically geospatial / spatiotemporal understanding of the data); knowledge management and well understood procedures are the secret of our success. Individual and collective; initial and continuation training also plays a vital part. The final aspect is well chosen, proactive, happy, well rewarded, not overloaded or under loaded staff. Oh, and plenty of tea and banter…
In the early years this is often not possible for start up intelligence companies. The delay in investment in a credible ops room is far worse for physical security companies who often have very tight cash flow cycles and other places to invest. To that end we have recently been asked to provide an outsourced operations room solution to a number of physical security companies. This observation is not intended as self aggrandising but simply to note that professional 24/7 operations support to teams on the water is becoming more important as the physical security market becomes more sophisticated.
My final thought for overloaded operations managers of security companies – we have felt your pain. Arranging, dispatching, supporting and recovering security teams 24/7/365 on your own with a mobile phone is no fun. We are always happy to offer tea and sympathy or practical advice on how to make the process less fragile.