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Principles of Situation Awareness
Applied to Corporate Decision Support Systems

by David Moore, Business AvionicsMonday, April 23, 2007


Once again the world has changed. The electronic spreadsheet was a giant evolutionary step in data collection, manipulation and presentation geared to provide better and faster decision support. The early 90s gave us OLAP systems. Now our spreadsheets could tap into warehouses full of information organized across a dozen dimensions if necessary. All geared to provide better and faster decision support.

Here we are 15 years later. The web transcends political and geographical boundaries and, in some sense, even time itself. Email has become the foundation of collaborative efforts facilitating the delivery of both the analysis and the insights. We have constructed virtual dashboards to assist our decision makers sift through the rows and columns of our spreadsheets for useful bits of information so they can make a decision. You know, they want “actionable information.” What does that really mean? Let me try to answer that question.

We have spent decades shoveling increasingly smaller bits of information into our data warehouses clear down to the transaction level. In addition, we now have systems that collect information about their own health, the status of other systems and even the environment. The web magnifies those capacities by several orders of magnitude. Our problem is not scarce data. Our problem is that our decision makers, through no fault of their own, don’t seem to be able to get at what they need when they need it. Is it any wonder that the most successful companies today are dedicated to searching for the right bits of information? The distance between the volume of data being amassed and anyone’s ability to find the needed bits is increasing every day. This problem is real. More data is not more information. Today’s decision maker is commonly overwhelmed and increasingly likely to neglect something critical.

This desire for “actionable information” on the part of any decision maker, whether it be C-level or entry level, in any industry is a cry for situational awareness (SA). Although military in its origin this concept can easily be applied to corporate decision making. A generally accepted definition declares that SA is "the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future" (Endsley, 1988). It is not difficult to conclude from that definition that we have always needed situational awareness in order to make good decisions. In fact, the fundamentals of the concept have been traced to Clausewitz’s “frictions of war.” The only thing that has changed over the centuries is the type and complexity of tools needed to deliver good SA. As information system designers and developers the decision support tools we provide must assist the operator become aware of and understand a massive amount of data in a rapidly changing environment. Clearly, systems that incorporate SA into the design process are the next step in the evolution of decision support. 

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A Complete Definition

In order to begin a discussion about how to incorporate situational awareness into a system it would be helpful to have a deeper understanding of what SA is. In its most basic form, situational awareness is knowing what is going on around you. It seems obvious but let’s explicitly add the requirement that a decision maker must also have a grasp on what is important to know. We’ll call this “prior knowledge” about the tasks to be completed or goals to be accomplished. From here, it is not a giant leap to make the claim that SA varies with, and is completely dependent on, the goals for any given job.

At this point it is possible to be a little confused. Let’s agree that SA is not decision making and decision making is not SA. A decision maker must have situation awareness before making a decision. However, this is not a patented formula for great decision making. It is entirely possible to have perfect SA and still make a bad decision. For example, a product manager may have a complete understanding of the competition’s strengths and weaknesses and still make a poor pricing or marketing decision. There are several possibilities that explain this. He may be operating under a limited set of decision choices because of organizational or technical thresholds. He may be short on “prior knowledge” in this position and is therefore lacking high-quality plans for this scenario. His own bias as a risk taker or risk avoider will also have an impact on the quality of his decision making. The good news is (I think) that it is also possible to make good decisions even with poor SA. Luck happens!

In order to take our understanding to the next level we will go beyond describing situational awareness as being “aware of your situation.”  In addition to providing our general definition Endsley (1988) goes on to describe it as comprising three levels. Level 1 is the perception of elements. Level 2 awareness comprehends what those elements mean. Level 3 uses that understanding to project future states.  I’ve provided a little more detail in the sections below. It is important to remember that SA at all levels is heavily influenced by uncertainty due to dozens of factors.  

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