Unleashing the power of data for the military

Digital Transformation Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 3 mins
How is UK Defence seeking to turn data into a strategic asset? Mivy James sits down with Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command, to find out…
Unleashing the power of data for the military Data is not a new thing – so why the big push for the military to make better use of it now?
 
It’s important to start with the threat we are facing, not least a return to very vigorous state-on-state competition with the likes of Russia; and also the wider disruption that is going on in the world, a process fuelled in large part by data and digital. From politics to commerce, entertainment to retail, pretty much everything is being ripped up. This democratisation of information and data is changing the world – and Defence is no exception.
 
Making smarter, better and quicker decisions has always been part of warfare and that’s why data remains so important. Digitisation means that we have access to more data than previously, and we have a new bunch of tools that can make even more of that data than ever before.  So in part it’s about better, quicker decisions, but it’s also about physical agility and mass – we’re a small island nation and we generate mass by having friends and allies. In due course, automation, robotics and autonomy will help us generate greater mass for the number of people we have. 
 
What needs to happen to ensure data is as much the lifeblood of the military as weaponry, leadership skills and so on?
 
An early bit of advice I got was that “you have to get your bosses to fall in love with their data”. And at the same time plenty of folk in Defence told me not to even bother trying. I’m not sure if we’re quite there in Defence yet but we’re not far off it – there aren’t many senior meetings in Defence where data isn’t getting a mention these days.  And of course the tragedy, but also the opportunity, of Covid-19 has contributed to that transformation in attitudes. Data has become essential to informing the big political and strategic decisions, as well as helping us all work remotely. This has done an awful lot to help the mainstream leadership of Defence get really focused on their data and what it can enable.
 
Our youngsters, of course, come in with a much more acute sense of what data can do for them because they’ve lived it throughout their lives. And then there all of those in the middle of the organisation – some of whom are falling in love with data and some of them who aren’t and may never.  I’ll bet that the number of them who will ever feel excited about data is in direct proportion to how many of them can be shown that not only can data help them do things better, but also to do better things, which is the real transformational prize. I don’t think we’re there yet but we’re on the journey and it’s going pretty well.
 
What are the next set of immediate challenges for Defence to overcome in order to move to the next level on data?
 
Caroline Bellamy, our Chief Data Officer, recently published the first ever data strategy for Defence and this spells out a lot of work we have to do to get principles and standards in place to know what data we’ve got, to make sure it is curated and catalogued properly, and to ensure it is machine and human ready. I guess every large organisation is focusing on that challenge.
 
Then in our digital strategy we set out this idea of the ‘digital backbone’ – which will allow us to access our data, connecting our sensors to our effectors via the relevant decision makers. The backbone is a fundamental enabler of our data availability and interoperability, and hence how we operate and fight. We also have explained our vision for a ‘digital foundry’ – a federated digital ecosystem made of the multiple digital teams across Defence, allowing us exploit our data to beneficial effect at pace and scale.
 
The real prize, though, the one that everyone is chasing, is to crack the wider cultural and skills challenge – this is just not for our digital folk but for the generalists too.
 
I think we’re getting amongst it pretty well – there’s lots of innovation going on which is showing the art of the possible – but the real challenge, which is my job to deliver, is to provide those core and shared enablers that allow us to scale those innovations and turn them into enterprise capabilities, rather than just pinpricks of excellence. Hence the backbone and foundry.
 
Do you have much in common with other government departments on some of these challenges?
 
Not only do we have much in common but we should be sharing data between us and increasingly using common digital infrastructure and tools.  In some areas we always have, with the intelligence agencies and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office being part of that, but we need to go much further.
 
Our Multi Domain Integration (MDI) plans mean that we’re not just trying to work across the military domains, but also work with our partners across government, with our allies around the world, as well as with industry and academia.
 
How does data support the wider MDI programme?
 
For me as a simple soldier, MDI is about making sure that the whole of defence is greater than the sum of its parts. Some might say that this just doesn’t happen but I think most of us who have worked in high performing organisations have seen that alchemy take place – the compound impact of people and organisations uniting to get that synergistic effect. This means you can do ten times more than when working in your own separate stovepipes, and this is really the essence of MDI.
 
Data is important to all this because it’s how we connect and communicate with each other across organisational boundaries and geographic distance and this is a hugely important part of that integration. At the most fundamental level, integrating our data powers better and faster decision making, but as we increasingly introduce automation and autonomy, integration of data and systems will become crucial in so many different areas, from targeting and manoeuvre to medical evacuation, last mile logistics and many more.
 
How do you get people excited by and investing in the nuts and bolts of data, as opposed to the more glamorous side such as data science and artificial intelligence (AI)?
 
This is where the digital foundry will come in, delivering the core foundational services which allow digital teams across Defence to do their best work. And of course last year the Prime Minister announced the creation of a Defence AI Centre, which will have a specific role in enabling and championing AI and data science, but the DAIC will depend on a much wider digital ecosystem to allow those tools to be deployed across the enterprise.
 
So whether it’s the data principles work Caroline Bellamy is leading, or the data analytics platform that we’ve just got to public beta, we are providing a framework of core services for people to consume. And this could also mean really smart commercial folk who know how to work with our digital supply in the spirit of partnership that software demands. Or it could be really smart financial folk who understand the pace at which software needs to move and who are able to revamp Defence’s processes to move at the right sort of speed and enable us to work with SMEs.
 
How are you seeking to make better use of Defence’s legacy systems?
 
I used to think we were slow to move to cloud but actually, when compared to others, I think we’re in roughly the same place.  But clearly, as we move to cloud, just like anybody, we’ll have to work out which applications we should lift and shift, and which applications can stay in an old fashioned data centre and let them keep running until they are replaced by something more modern.
 
You yourself don’t have a background in technology and engineering – does that make you a role model for others who don’t have a background in tech to move into this type of senior role?
 
I’m not sure about being a role model but if it gives people hope that someone with an English Literature degree can survive and thrive in this world then that’s good! I constantly remind people that it’s not all about the tech – it’s people, process, data and technology, in that order.
 
In our transformation portfolio, people and skills are the two things I worry about most, alongside culture. Getting people aligned, getting people excited, getting people engaged, and getting people to see the art of the possible – and then equipping them with the skills and attitude to deliver - this is all a big part of the job. 
 
As well as that leadership function, I also act as a Babel Fish – trying to understand some of the tech, just to the extent I need to understand it – and then turning it into as plain English as possible. And not so much focusing on how the tech works but what it can do for us – and how it can help transform the way we operate and fight.
 

About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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Mivy James Digital Transformation Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 15 November 2021