You've undoubtedly heard military officials and emergency professionals speak about situational awareness. But what do they mean? And how does it relate to the private sector? Simply put, situational awareness is a conscious state of observing your surroundings, assessing possible threats, and evaluating the need for action based on incoming information and future projections. It's a physical and cognitive process: a way of using our senses, to make decisions and maintain control in uncertain situations.
When we apply situational awareness to corporate operations, we change the setting but not the message. In business, leadership, and personnel must maintain sightlines into day-to-day operations, recognize and understand disruptions and define pathways to forecast and mitigate risks.
Specific details aside: all problems require solutions, and all actions have consequences.
From natural disasters and workplace violence to equipment failure or supply chain delays, the concept of situational awareness is essential to resuming normal operations with minimal impact. So how do we develop this mindset? Or better yet, heighten it?
In a word: teamwork.
It's time to step out of the silo. When things go wrong, communication and collaboration can enhance an individual or group's ability to build and preserve situational awareness. Developing a unified approach allows individuals with different skill sets and responsibilities to work together towards a common goal—resolution.
Before delving deeper into the conversation, let's clear up one common misconception. When people hear the terms situation awareness or critical event, they tend to picture natural disasters. While weather-related emergencies carry catastrophic consequences, they are not the only threat. Businesses of all sizes suffer serious long-term effects from everyday operation disruptions.
Let's look at two examples.
The setting is a satellite office of a large law firm. At 9 am, an electrical fire triggers alarms, forces evacuation and sends two employees to the hospital. One hour later, Bill, the office manager, notifies corporate headquarters. Shaken and concerned for his staff, he recounts the incident without diving too deep into details.
Unfortunately, the manager receiving the call neglects to employ situational awareness. She doesn't question Bill about other injuries, building damages or equipment status. Nor does she, offer suggestions for an interim plan. Instead, she focuses her attention on the present, skips over the assessment phase and deploys an ill-equipped team to oversee recovery efforts without speaking to other company leaders. What results is a calamity.
When the three-person crew pulls up to the scene, it doesn't take long for them to realize they are unprepared and understaffed. Having left headquarters with a hastily-packed trunk of supplies and limited insight; the team arrived to find miles of caution tape surrounding a shell of an office building. The fire department is gone—so is the staff. The crew has no access to
employee phone numbers, and because the building is in ruins, they can't investigate the damage without compromising their safety. So for the next six hours, they spend their time tracking down answers and fielding calls from frustrated leaders, partners, and government authorities.
In the end, it takes four days to set up a temporary office, and resume operations. The oversite cost the company millions. If a proper assessment of the situation had been performed, a properly staffed and prepared response could have been mounted and operations could have been resumed days earlier, saving the company millions. Now let's examine another scenario.
It's a typical Tuesday morning at the ABC manufacturing plant in Tacoma. At around 1 pm, an electronics system error shuts down one of the workstations. Thinking, it's an easy fix, Jason, the machine operator, makes the first bad decision. He neglects to identify and assess the problem before acting. Careful not to draw notice to himself, he grabs a few tools and proceeds to disassemble the panel. Unfortunately, the system proves to be more complicated then he imagined, and Jason's error begins to affect the adjacent workstations.
By the time the preoccupied plant manager notices, employees are arguing, production has halted, and a costly conveyor system lies in a pile of pieces. Dreading reprimand, and expecting a swift resolution, the manager makes a short-sighted decision. Without weighing the outcome or notifying leadership, he defuses the dispute, calls for repairs and sends everyone home early. To make matters worse, he fails to consider repair timelines, assess distribution complications, or predict long-term damages.
By 5 pm that day, the organization is in turmoil. Because of reduced situational awareness, delivery and shipment companies weren't notified of schedule changes, distributors missed deadlines, and corporate executives found out too late to enact damage control. The result? Lost production, lost revenue, unhappy investors and strained partner relations. In retrospect, if the manager exercised situational awareness, the outcome would have been better. Upon identifying the problem, the manager would have gained intel, notified partners and employees, and collaborated with senior leadership to rectify the incident before it spiraled out of control.
Poor perception and short-term thinking are detrimental to continuity. It's imperative to establish baselines and identify anomalies before they become barriers. Working in a collaborative environment and communicating effectively, enables individuals and teams to view obstacles from all angles while making decisions based on multiple perspectives rather than individual beliefs.
Whether it be a life-threatening circumstance or an isolated issue, awareness is crucial. In a perfect world, disruptions would come with two-weeks’ notice, and everyone would know what to do. However, that's not realistic. Eternal optimism will not fix every problem. Thankfully, it's much simpler today to gain situational awareness. Technology has bridged communication gaps; supplying us with collaborative tools that transcend distance and language barriers. Using the devices we've come to rely on, we can connect in real-time to accumulate facts, asses variables, and anticipate impact—reducing risks and combating crisis with shared situational awareness.
At Konexus, we recognize the urgency and complexity of situational awareness. That's why we develop technology to simplify and expedite the process. In the words of our CEO David Smith, “Our mission is to help people connect and collaborate to accelerate resolution in any crisis.”