Toggle search
Toggle location

Playing to win: using situational awareness in decision-making

Situational awareness helps organisations improve customer engagement and deliver better services by using the information at their fingertips. We explore the theory then talk to Chicago’s CIO to uncover best practices

Stating the problem: What can be done with all this data?
While the wealth of data available to organisations continues to grow, it is also becoming an increasing source of frustration due to the overheads in assessing, analysing and delivering the insights it contains in a timely manner. Even if the insights are available, the aspiration to make better decisions in real-time can be stymied by corporate processes, ill-defined roles and responsibilities, or other extenuating factors. Help is at hand. The discipline of situational awareness, which takes its lead from early response in military, aviation and crisis contexts, has been defined from the ground up to consider not only how to gather and present the right information, but also how to ensure roles are correctly defined such that an organisation or group can take action with minimal delay (note1). Against a background of dealing with front line threats, such as terrorism and crisis management, failure of the approach is not an option.

So, what is situational awareness?
The main premise of situational awareness is to centre decision-making (and action-taking) on a specific situation. It constitutes a four-stage approach:

  • Perception: collate all information relevant to that situation;
  • Comprehension: quickly analyse for insight and prediction;
  • Projection: confirm that the correct roles and responsibilities have been established;
  • Action: define a clear set of actions to enable an effective response in the shortest possible time.

The main premise of situational awareness is to centre decision-making (and action-taking) on a specific situation 

Clearly, the moment when a crisis strikes is not the best time to start looking into what might be necessary to respond. Hence, situational awareness requires an appropriate level of effort in advance so that these four stages of activity can be applied in the shortest possible time frame. Equally, while some scenarios can be tested in advance, others cannot – but, by thinking ahead about information and roles, even the most unexpected scenarios can be prepared for.

Applying the principles to non-crisis situations
The core practices of situational awareness can also be used in non-crisis contexts. In the corporate environment for example, a business process is generally understood to respond to a specific event and deliver an outcome of value to a customer. Situational awareness tells us to consider the business process as a whole, based on the specifics of the situation, and therefore ensure that the actions taken will deliver the best possible results. But aren’t organisations doing this already? To take a specific example, business processes and day-to-day activities do not always manage to keep focus on the situation at hand. Customer interactions can frequently trigger events that create both opportunities and risks, depending on the speed and effectiveness of the response. In retail telecommunications for example, a customer may call a helpline to ask about contract renewal, and receive a certain service that then requires the customer to visit a retail outlet. Often, however, the experience at the physical store is different – for better or worse – than the telephone interaction. Situational awareness recognises that both interactions are part of a response to the same event, and treats them accordingly – in this case, as an opportunity to retain a customer. The discipline then sets out the information requirements for how to deal best with the opportunity in terms of:

  • Dimensions: customer demographics, socio-economics, age, gender and buying history;
  • Perspectives: how and where the customer is interacting, both currently and in the recent past.

Such information is generally available – situational awareness moves customer requirements to centre stage and ensures the organisation is geared up to respond in the best way possible, by actively considering roles and actions based on the data at hand. In the same example, the retail sales assistant could liaise with the company’s call centre to ensure that the customer does not need to repeat an entire process. The sales assistant has all the available information, thereby increasing the probability of customer satisfaction, say regarding contract renewal.

Building situational awareness
Successfully putting situational awareness into practice requires approaching your business from the customer’s perspective. In other words, start by thinking about the outcomes you are trying to achieve or the relationships you are seeking to maximise. For example, if you are a wireless provider and your goal is to maximise customer retention, you will want to map out what the customer journey looks like, from acquisition to service renewal or cancellation. It is at this stage that situational awareness comes into play. As you map the customer journey, you can identify the touch points with your company along the way, and take an inventory of the data available at each of them. This enables you to focus on the insights your representatives need to best serve each customer at each touch point. For example, you might have a measure indicating loyalty of a given customer, an indicator of their monthly or annual value, a profile of the customer and their household, or knowledge of past issues and their resolution. These data sets provide a complete view of the customer’s ‘situation’. At this point, you’re halfway there. For situational awareness to deliver, you then need to spell out roles and responsibilities, so any actions you take can be consistent and effective. Ultimately, you want staff that deal with the customer directly to be able to take appropriate action quickly and decisively in a way that best serves the customer, by using the right information at the right time. At its best, situational awareness creates seamless customer experiences and satisfied customers. However, you need to avoid making the solution too programmatic. Recent examples in airline and retail industries provide warning signs about relying too much on data and insights, and not enough on training staff to deal with actual customer interactions. For example, an international airline launched a comprehensive data programme where flight staff were armed with mobile devices and given deep profiles of any top-tier customers on their aircraft.(note2). While attendants were trained on the data, they were not shown how to use the information to engage in helpful conversations. Rather than create a positive experience, customers complained that flight staff knew ‘too much’ about them and were uncomfortable on the flights (note3). Had the airline spent time defining objectives, such as when and how attendants should use the data, customers may have appreciated the programme more. Instead, it began to trend on social media, as customers tweeted and blogged about their bad experiences, forcing the airline to defend the programme. Similarly, we have all experienced situations where customer representatives have clearly been reading from a script, leading to canned phrases and pre-determined actions. Again, by clearly defining the roles and intended outcomes, when executed properly, situational awareness enables the creation of natural conversations with customers that serve to improve customer relationships, not harm them.

Applying situational awareness to service situations
The ability to apply situational awareness best practice also relates to service delivery. Chicago’s municipal authority, for example, has turned its attention to a number of ‘situations’ and their causes – for example, the increase of garbage can theft in poorly lit areas of the city (during a power outage, for example), or challenges around the routing of snowploughs around the city, which can lead to vehicles being blocked in or drivers receiving unnecessary parking tickets (note4).

Situational awareness enables the creation of natural conversations with customers

In both cases the solution is to treat each situation on its merits, collating the necessary data and ensuring that the municipal authority has allocated actions to the right roles, to minimise the impact of each situation – notably in these cases, by providing power outage information to street-level law-enforcement officers, and by ensuring residents can access information about snowplough routes so they can move their cars. As with retail situations, organisations may have some elements in place already – but are not necessarily thinking about situations and their responses to them in a fully joined-up manner. Situational awareness offers a potential solution to the challenges of ‘siloed’, vertical departments and poorly defined responsibilities, such as inefficiency, delay or even total lack of decision-making at all. Once organisations are in tune with thinking ‘situationally’, they can step up a gear. For example San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) was able to use situational awareness techniques to deal with challenges around electric cars (note 5) – notably the propensity for the majority of drivers to recharge their cars at the same time in the evening, causing undue stress on the electrical grid. By considering the needs and typical scenarios of individual clusters of drivers, SDG&E was able to focus on education, outreach and incentivising each cluster, to encourage behavioural change around scheduling their charging cycles.

Dealing with major events
Of course, the ability of situational awareness to respond to major events can also be applied in non-crisis contexts. For example the data strategy for the 2012 NATO summit, held in the city of Chicago, was built around situational awareness. Organisers wanted to construct a picture of every city activity occurring whenever a NATO event was happening, such as a dinner or a summit session, to ensure they could respond to the unexpected.

Once organisations are in tune with thinking ‘situationally’, they can step up a gear

Chicago’s IT function enabled situational awareness processes for all critical departments, to build this picture of events around the summit. By extracting data from city systems (including scheduled maintenance, non-emergency 311 calls, and time-critical 911 calls relevant to each location), then integrating and analysing it temporally and spatially, it was able to create an interface in which any location could be viewed, to see what activity was occurring around it. While data growth is becoming a major challenge for many organisations, the bottom line is that situational awareness enables such organisations to respond in the most effective way, with a focus on results. For businesses that feel they are ‘playing but not winning’, situational awareness offers a new way to simplify and enhance front line decision-making. 

Applying situational awareness in Chicago

An interview with Brett Goldstein, former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago

The Chicago Authority has been employing situational awareness techniques to track street cleaners and maintenance routes, as well as for their ‘big data’ approach to hosting and managing the 2012 NATO summit.

Here we talk to the man behind these initiatives, CIO Brett Goldstein, to understand how situational awareness can incorporate data analytics into the ‘business as usual’ of running a city like Chicago, driving significant improvements to decision-making and service delivery.

[BearingPoint Institute] How did situational awareness come about for the City of Chicago? How did you go about achieving buy-in into the principles by other parts of the organisation – was it much of a challenge or was it straightforward?

[Brett Goldstein] Our mechanism to deliver citywide situational awareness has been through WindyGrid, a geospatially enabled application that utilises big data to aid city officials. The program was built in-house by the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) using open source tools, and went from inception to citywide enterprise rollout in less than 16 months. During that process, we demonstrated our situational awareness programme to city agencies, showing commissioners across departments the benefits that WindyGrid could bring to city staff: situational awareness and incident monitoring, historical geospatial data retrieval, and real-time advanced analytics.

By undertaking a collaborative, cross-agency method of introducing our product, WindyGrid’s value as a situational awareness tool that brings improved interoperability, enhanced efficiency, and reduced costs has been positively received in municipal agencies throughout Chicago.

What prerequisites did you have in place to aid implementation of situational awareness?

We had strong executive sponsorship of the project and a great partner to pilot the system. The Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) began using WindyGrid in May 2012 as a real-time situational awareness and incident-monitoring tool; the OEMC continued to use the system to support these functions beyond that time.

The key process we needed for WindyGrid to take off was to bring the city’s data together

The OEMC is an important partner, as personnel from agencies across the city staff the OEMC’s emergency operations centre during events. This enabled different departments to gain exposure to the WindyGrid tool and cross-agency teams to demonstrate the value of the situational awareness system. This helped generate excitement among other agencies, preparing the way for a successful enterprise rollout.

From a technology infrastructure perspective, what needed to be in place to enable situational awareness to ‘fly’?

The key process we needed for WindyGrid to take off was to bring the city’s data together. Like most big cities, Chicago’s data has been stored historically in departmental silos. This old model is incompatible with what is needed to develop a program like WindyGrid. At the core of our situational awareness program is the ability to visualise disparate data – CTA activity, 911 calls, garbage truck locations, and so forth – at the same time and in the same place.

To do so, we extracted data out of the city’s legacy systems and into MongoDB, an open source, NoSQL-style database for unstructured data. MongoDB has become the foundation of WindyGrid – storing millions of records and enabling real-time situational awareness, historical data retrieval and predictive analytics. To visualise all this data and provide users with an easy-to-use interface that could be accessed from most devices, we leveraged Esri’s ArcGIS mapping software, a common tool among city governments. This provided us with a secure front end using software we already owned.

How quickly did you start seeing the benefits of situational awareness – what were the first benefits to come through?

Our beta prototype for WindyGrid was first put to use in May 2012 and was a success. Users could monitor 911, 311, and asset locations in real-time – providing a holistic view of what was happening around the city. Following the success of this pilot, the tool was put to use during other events, including parades and extreme weather incidents. The program allows public safety officials, workers from the Department of Streets and Sanitation and other offices to coordinate security, road closures and clean-up as needed, in less time and at a lower cost. Furthermore, we see WindyGrid as a dynamic tool: once departments begin using the system, staff start to contribute ideas about data sources that could be added or other potential enhancements. The team in DoIT responds to these requests, rolling out enhancements iteratively and continuing to improve the business value of the system.

What would you say was the main benefit of using situational awareness techniques to the City of Chicago projects?

Better visibility, improved efficiency, greater service levels, better reporting – these all apply. Improved efficiency and greater service levels also mean that we’re more able to deploy the city’s resources strategically, reducing time and cost.

In what ways have the City of Chicago ‘customers’ noticed the benefits of your use of situational awareness?

WindyGrid’s benefits are most visible to Chicago residents when they experience improved performance in the delivery of city services to their neighbourhoods, or in responses to situations that require cross-departmental operations. Large amounts of data utilised by WindyGrid are available for the public to see and interact with through the Chicago Data Portal (see figure 2), which is open to the public.

What would you advise anyone considering starting down the track of adopting situational awareness techniques in their own organisation?

The efficacy of any given situational awareness program depends on the depth and quality of its data. If other municipalities wish to build a program like WindyGrid, they need to be ready to bring together massive amounts of unstructured, disparate government data in a coherent manner. Start by bringing together the highest value datasets, and take an iterative approach to deploying the tool. In that way you begin to deliver business value immediately and encourage adoption. As a product of open source tools, we are making WindyGrid an open source application — so that it may be replicated and improved upon by other cities and their developers. We hope to see other cities benefit from these models the way we have.

Figure 2: City of Chicago data portal

Biography Brett Goldstein

Brett Goldstein, former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago led successful efforts to use data to improve the way city government serves its residents and established one of the largest open-data programs in the country. In 2012, Goldstein also assumed the role of Chief Information Officer for the City of Chicago, in which he worked to accelerate Chicago’s growth as a global hub of innovation and technology, adopting modern technology to save taxpayer funds, creating a robust collaboration with Chicago’s developer community and integrating data analytics into everyday government operations.

  • About the author

    Joe DeCosmo is a director at West Monroe Partners, in charge of advanced analytics and insights. He has more than 20 years of experience building successful customer analytics teams and leading large and complex projects. His experience spans a broad range disciplines that drive effective customer intelligence and predictive analytics, including business intelligence and marketing performance dashboards, loyalty programmes, customer segmentation, promotional mix and response attribution modelling, forecasting and demand planning, and supply chain analysis.

    West Monroe Partners is a business and technologyconsulting firm and the BearingPoint alliance partner for North America, @WestMonroe

  • Notes and bibliography
    1. Measuring and predicting shared situation awareness in teams’, Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision
    2. Making, Volume 3, Number 3, pages 280–308, Lelyn D Saner et al., 09/09,
    3. ‘British Airways crews read up on VIPs on iPads’, Bloomberg, New York, USA, web, Steve Rothwell, 16/02/12, http://bloom. bg/1aH70d4
    4. ‘IAPA blogs | Flight attendants may soon be sporting iPads to enhance service’, International Airline Passengers Association, Priority Travel Group, Croydon, UK, web, IAPA blogs, 23/02/12,
    5. ‘Modelling a smarter city,’ Brett Goldstein, CIO, City of Chicago, presentation to the American Statistical Association, 25/09/12. Luncheon invite to the East Bank Club:
    6. ‘Lessons learned: how utilities leverage data’, Intelligent Utility, page 21, Aurora, CO, USA, PDF file: webcast, Alan Dugero et al., 13/12/11,
  • Project team
    Joe de Cosmo, Dave Nash and Dan Rosanova from West Monroe Partners; Brett Goldstein, former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago.

More institute articles