Business Agility & the OODA Loop

Preamble

The OOAD (Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action) loop is a real-time decision-making paradigm developed in the sixties by Colonel John Boyd from his experience as fighter pilot and military strategist.

(Moholy Nagy)

How to get inside opponent’s loop (Lazlo Moholy-Nagy)

The relevancy of OODA for today’s operational decision-making comes from the seamless integration of IT systems with business operations and the resulting merits of agile development processes.

Business: End of Discrete Time-Frames

Business governance was used to be phased: analyze the market, select opportunities, build capabilities, launch operations. No more. With the melting of the fences between actual and symbolic realms, periodic transitional events have lost most of their relevancy. Deprived of discrete and robust time-frames, the weaving of observed facts with business plans has to be managed on the fly. Success now comes from continuous readiness, quicker tempo, and the ability to operate inside adversaries’ time-scales, for defense (force competitor out of favorable position) as well as offense (get a competitive edge). Hence the reference to dogfights.

Dogfights & Agile Primacy

John Boyd train of thoughts started with the observation that, despite the apparent superiority of the soviet Mig 15 on US F-86 during the Korea war, US fighters stood their ground. From that factual observation it took Boyd’s comprehensive engineering work to demonstrate that as far as dogfights were concerned fast transients between maneuvers (aka agility) was more important than technical capabilities. Pushed up Pentagon’s reluctant ladders by Boyd’s sturdy determination, that conclusion have had wide-ranging consequences in the design of USAF fighters and pilots formation for the following generations. Its influence also spread to management, even if theories’ turnover is much faster there, and shelf-life much shorter.

Nowadays, with the accelerated integration of business processes with IT systems, agility is making a comeback from the software engineering corner. Reflecting business and IT convergence, principles like iterative development, just-in-time delivery, and lean processes, all epitomized by the agile software development model, are progressively mingling into business practices with strong resemblances to dogfights; and the resemblances are not only symbolic.

IT Systems & Business Competition

While some similarities between dogfights and business competition may seem metaphorical, one critical aspect is all too real, namely the increasing importance of supporting machines, IT systems or fighter jets.

Basically, IT systems, like fighters’ electronics, are tasked to observe environments, analyse changes in relation to position and objectives, and support decision-making. But today’s systems go further with two qualitative leaps:

  • The seamless integration of physical and symbolic flows let systems manage some overlapping between supporting decisions and carrying out actions.
  • Due to their artificial intelligence capabilities, systems can learn on-the-job and improve their performances in real-time feedback loops.

When combined, these two trends have drastic impact on the way machines can support human activities in real-time competitive situations. More to the point, they bring new light on business agility.

Business Agility

As illustrated by the radical transformation of fighter cockpits, the merging of analog and digital flows leaves little room for human mediation: data must be processed into information and presented instantly along two critical dimensions, one for decision-making, the other for information life-cycle:

  • Man/Machine interfaces have to materialize the merging of actual and symbolic realms as to support just-in-time decision-making.
  • The replacement of phased selected updates of environment data by continuous changes in raw and massive data means that the status of information has to be incorporated with the information itself, yet without impairing decision-making.

Beyond obvious differences between dogfights and business competition, that double exigence is to characterize business agility:

  1. Instant understanding of changes in business opportunities (Observation) .
  2. Simultaneous assessment of the reliability and shelf-life of pertaining information with regard to current positions and operations (Orientation).
  3. Weighting of options with regard to enterprise capabilities and broader objectives (Decision).
  4. Carrying out of decisions within the relevant time-span (Action).

That understanding of business agility is to be compared with its development and architecture cousins. Yet it doesn’t seem to add much to data analytics and operational decision-making. That is until the concept of orientation is reassessed.

Agility & Orientation: Task vs Tack

To begin with basics, the concept of Orientation comes with a twofold meaning, actual and symbolic:

  • Actual: a position with regard to external (e.g spacial) coordinates, possibly qualified with abilities to observe, move, or act.
  • Symbolic: a position with regard to internal (e.g beliefs or aims) references, possibly mixed with known or presumed orientation of other agents, opponents or associates.

When business is considered, data analytics is supposed to deal comprehensively and accurately with markets’ actual orientations. But the symbolic facet is left largely unexplored.

Boyd’s contribution is to bring together both aspects and combine them into actual practice, namely how to foretell the tack of your opponents from their actual tracks as well as their surmised plans, while fooling them about your own moves, actual or planned.

Such ambitions once out of reach, can now be fulfilled due to the combination of big data, artificial intelligence, and the exponential growth on computing power.

Further Readings

 

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