The Situational Awareness Playbook for Complex Operations

September 26, 2023


5 minutes

At any given moment, most of us have some level of awareness about our surroundings. When we walk, we watch what’s ahead of us before taking a step, and we’re cautious about making sure no vehicles are coming before we cross the street. When we drive, we’re constantly aware of the vehicles around us; with good situational awareness, we can anticipate whether one of them will swerve into our lane or slam on the brakes.

The ability to anticipate what might occur, plan for it, and react to it when it happens is at the core of situational awareness. It’s a continuous cycle of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting (OODA). After each action, the cycle repeats with new information to observe and orient yourself around. There are new circumstances to assess and different sets of specific actions to decide on in each new dynamic situation.

The concept of situational awareness is just as critical to running a business. However, obtaining a high level of awareness isn’t just about obtaining data. When companies focus solely on collecting vast amounts of data without a system to analyze, prioritize, and distribute it efficiently, the data isn’t as useful as it should be. In fact, too much unorganized data can even feel burdensome. To increase situational awareness, operations need the right tools to make sense of that information.

Technology That Develops Situational Awareness

Before decision makers can call the shots with confidence, they need information. Most industries have already recognized the need for data, and there’s a growing trend of companies implementing different types of technologies to collect increasingly more information:

IoT-connected assets:

The Internet of Things, or IoT, has been the most significant factor in improving companies’ situational awareness. IoT-connected assets, including sensors, manned and unmanned vehicles, smart gates and perimeters, and more create a connected network that continuously provides managers and teams with real-time operational visibility. The IoT market is only expected to keep expanding — from $690 billion in 2019 to $1,256.1 billion by 2025.

Mobile devices as communication tools:

Communication is a key aspect of operational efficiency in any industry. Especially as the number of remote workers has skyrocketed in 2020, mobile communication has become a staple in companies’ operations. Field service operations, for example, have always needed to connect dispersed employees. Field service teams and managers often communicate through smartphones and mobile chat apps, as well as email, texts, direct messaging, and more.

Geographic information systems (GIS):

GIS is a combination of IoT-connected technologies that provide companies with contextualized spatial data of their operations. With real-time data collected by sensors, geographic tags, and digital mapping, GIS technologies provide dynamically updated operational visibility to further increase situational awareness into every operation.

Technology connecting people and information


From Information to Awareness

Situational awareness and real operational visibility rely heavily on the information that these and other technologies provide. However, data and communication alone aren’t enough to turn information into awareness. As industries collect more and more data, they must also focus on making that data actionable and digestible for the workers who need to use it. Too much unstructured, unorganized data can do more harm than good as workers may become fatigued by irrelevant alerts and confused by information that has nothing to do with the job at hand.

To ensure the increase of data drives productivity and efficiency rather than hindering it, companies must use the right collaboration tools to share relevant information in context, turning data from various sources into a single common operational picture and enhancing situational awareness and operational visibility.

For example, when companies utilize a collaboration tool such as Coolfire, data collection isn’t the only use they get out of their technologies. In operations where teams are deployed far from the home office, they don’t just need more data — they need the right data. Coolfire’s software allows companies to immediately identify the most relevant information for their teams and provide that information to them wherever they are.

If teams are deployed in areas where connectivity is spotty or nonexistent, they can utilize the collaboration tool’s edge computing capabilities to collect, analyze, and prioritize data on-site. They don’t have to wait for connectivity to send the information to a centralized cloud before being able to make use of it. With a clear understanding of the common operational picture, dispersed teams can make the right decisions faster in the field.

Situational Awareness in Action

Situational awareness is the same concept in every industry, but how it’s achieved and applied varies according to the types of operations a company engages in. For example, in transportation and logistics, most operations have the same goal: to deliver a product from point A to point B as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible. To do this, the transportation company, vendor, and customer need to be aware of several factors along the way.

Technologies such as RFID tags and blockchain can tell all stakeholders where a load is at any given moment, allowing them to coordinate deliveries in real time. If the situation on the road changes and the driver is delayed or the vehicle breaks down and the shipment is at risk, all stakeholders are alerted of the situation. They can adjust their schedules to the new delivery timetable with minimal loss of time or productivity.

In emergency response situations, situational awareness is similar, but the data, context, and implications are often far more serious. Emergency responders need to know what awaits them before venturing into any environment and whether any other firefighters, EMTs, and responders are nearby. Every situation can have life-or-death consequences, and situational awareness is essential to making the right decisions.

For example, if a building is on fire, firefighters can check the building’s schematics to know its layout before going in. Data from IoT-connected sensors, alarms, and cameras can tell them where the fire is concentrated, whether any survivors need rescuing, and where they’re located. They can then send this information to EMTs and other emergency responders to prepare them for the situation if they haven’t yet arrived.

Whether it’s to save lives in an emergency or enhance efficiency in day-to-day business operations, situational awareness is an essential concept for any organization’s success. However, increasing it takes more than implementing one or two new technologies to gather more data. For many companies, the missing piece of the puzzle is the right collaboration tool that makes optimal use of these technologies.

How to Increase Situational Awareness

Utilizing more advanced technologies is an essential first step to increasing situational awareness. If companies still rely on manual processes, such as paper and phone calls, they can’t aggregate the amount of data necessary fast enough to contribute to their operational visibility. They also can’t extract relevant, contextualized information for each situation and deliver it to the right teams on the fly.

With more advanced communication and data collection technologies, companies can begin to form situational awareness by developing a robust common operational picture, or COP. This picture is displayed to everyone in the organization across various mobile devices and computers and consists of the same data.

Companies that operate around a well-defined COP ensure that no two pieces of data ever contradict each other. Everyone is on the same page; can access task-relevant data; and can communicate with managers, team members, customers, and vendors around a single source of truth. When the COP is continuously updated with real-time information in the field, the right collaboration tool turns it into a tangible, contextualized picture.

For example, displaying data points on a digitally mapped GIS creates a digital visualization that illustrates the geography, environment, and locations of assets, individuals, and critical events. The collaboration tool integrates data collected from IoT-connected sensors and information from distributed teams into the picture to ensure real-time situational awareness. From this visualization, operation managers can provide their teams with real situational awareness.

As the world’s interconnectivity grows, your business will collect more and more data. With the right tools to organize, share, and act upon it, you can use this data to increase situational awareness and drive efficiency and productivity in your operations.

To learn more about the importance of situational awareness and how to develop it, download our whitepaper, “The Importance of Situational Awareness for Operations and How to Develop It.”

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