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The data problem the U.S. Department of Defense shares with Engineering and Construction

Ever heard the phrase Data Rich and Information Poor (DRIP) levied at Engineering and Construction? It is a problem shared with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) . Now the $10 billion JEDI cloud-computing project has hit the headlines as the world's richest businessman and most powerful leader go head to head in a clash of the titans...


What is JEDI? And more importantly for engineering and construction (E&C)...what is DRIP and how does it degrade situational awareness, decision making and outcomes?

This post is intended as a launchpad to answering these questions. The NY Times coverage of Amazon's allegation that the contract was improperly awarded reminded me of a highly commended 2018 essay from The Strategy Bridge[1] writing contest on the topic of DRIP. Rather than reconstitute what has been written concisely elsewhere I include links below to both the article that prompted my recollection, and the essay itself.


I would urge you first read Kara Swisher's NY Times opinion piece to provide context for the JEDI project and the ensuing Bezos vs Trump clash [2]. Then, reading Geoff Weber's excellent essay Data Rich and Information Poor (DRIP): The Adversary of Lethality [3] provides valuable insight into how DRIP compromises situational awareness, decision making and outcomes. The essay resonated with my own experiences in E&C with clear parallels to companies facing the challenge of deriving meaningful information from the myriad of largely unstructured records that converge at the top of supply chains.


Uncertainty and regret are not comfortable bed fellows when high stake decisions are being made. In distressed projects and contentious claim or dispute scenarios the consequences of being 'data rich information poor' are profound. Degraded situational awareness impairs decision making and contributes to an illusion of control, a state reinforced by ubiquitous overconfidence that unrealistically skews perception of the quality of project records, our own ability, team performance, time and cost.


Those first reading about DRIP thinking it is a recent phenomenon are mistaken when it is as old as E&C's productivity crisis, the phrase having first been coined nearly 40 years ago in business bestseller In search of excellence: lessons from America's best-run companies [4]. Mr Weber quotes a 1976 paper by Clausewitz et al to evidence earlier understanding in military circles who state:

"Information systems are a critical requirement for good intelligence and must provide information to decision makers which is both timely and relevant. However, data rich and information poor practices greatly impede the completeness, speed, and accuracy of this information. This “aspect of a critical requirement which is deficient” makes information systems a Department of Defense critical vulnerability that could lead to catastrophic effects." Weber

Many in E&C are quick to dismiss the potential of digitalisation for productivity gain, most often citing the differences between E&C and manufacturing. This is too narrow a frame of reference. We share complex information challenges with the DoD and others and would do well to observe and learn from how they address DRIP.

"The majority of data in the Department of Defense resides in a fragmented assortment of unstructured and un-authoritative portals making it improbable for analysts to rapidly fuse into timely knowledge of the operational environment." Weber

Sound familiar?


Although achieved by some, wholesale adoption of the proactive supply chain management needed to assure information standards across highly variable supply chains is unrealistic. Even in an age of collaboration and common data environments the E&C information landscape remains complex and the ability to rapidly defragment relevant data, illusive.


It always comes back to time, cost and quality, especially in regard to time bound decision making such as that in the DoD, contractual completion dates with liquidated and ascertained damages, or in formal dispute processes. Here, the principal of satisficing [5], whereby decisions are deemed as simply good enough in light of the costs and constraints involved, is ever-present. In dispute resolution 60-80% of consultant time is routinely spent finding and extracting relevant data, often before meaningful analysis can begin. This is in line with the two-thirds of analyst time Lieutenant General Michael Peterson, the Air Force Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer, laments in Mr Weber's essay.

"Finding the authoritative data becomes time-consuming and difficult for intelligence analysts because the data are stored in multiple locations...two-thirds of the time required to prosecute a time-sensitive target is allocated to manual communication processes—not machine to machine, not automated, but rather someone making a voice call, writing something down, or manually entering data." Weber

I do not disagree that the industry would benefit from transformative change. The scope of this change is arguably captured in the 54 cures included in the recent paper by Denicol et al, What are the Causes and Cures of Poor Megaproject Performance? A Systemic Literature Review and Research Agenda [6]. But, such transformation will take decades to achieve and largely remains aspirational.


DRIP on the other hand is something that the industry could and should look to address in the here and now. Fortunately technology advances at a quicker pace than E&C can transform. Where there was once no practical solution to the DRIP problem, now one exists. Document processing and artificial intelligence offer a practical stop gap solution to defragmenting existing supply chain data to allow for grass root improvement in decision making for those sitting atop complex supply chains resistant to change.


I hope this post and the linked content help contextualise the risk and opportunity presented by project data. How advances in technologies allow for the benefits to be realised before transformational change has occurred I will cover in future posts.


The article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/opinion/trump-amazon-jedi.html


The essay: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/11/6/data-rich-and-information-poor-dripthe-adversary-of-lethality


The Author

Charlie Woodley is the founding Director of Dispute Data, a legal-tech startup prospectively using advanced document processing and forensics to capture otherwise intangible value from engineering and construction project records. His career incorporates construction information technology in contracting, claims, expert advisory and expert witness services. He holds an MBA in Real Estate and Construction Management, led the creation of a research programme which has examined dispute causation on over 700 major projects worldwide with a combined CAPEX in excess of US$ 1 trillion, and has conducted post graduate research into behavioural economics in expert practice.

[1] The Strategy Bridge is a non-profit organization focused on the development of people

in strategy, national security, & military affairs. https://thestrategybridge.org/


[2] SWISHER K (2020), The Epic Battle Between Trump and Bezos Is On,

New York Times, 18 February 2020

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/opinion/trump-amazon-jedi.html

President Trump with Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, center, and the Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos in 2017.Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


[3] WEBER G (2018), Data Rich and Information Poor (DRIP): The Adversary of Lethality

The Strategy Bridge, 06 November 2018

https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/11/6/data-rich-and-information-poor-dripthe-adversary-of-lethality

Operations Specialist 2nd Class Andres Yanez, of Houston, Texas, stands watch in the combat information center (CIC) aboard guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens. (Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Lowell Whitman/U.S. Navy Photo)


[4] PETERS, T. J., & WATERMAN, R. H. (1982). In search of excellence: lessons from America's best-run companies. New York, Harper & Row


[5] According to Herbert Simon, people tend to make decisions by satisficing (a combination of sufficing and satisfying) rather than optimizing (Simon, 1956). Decisions are often simply good enough in light of the costs and constraints involved. As a heuristic, satisficing individuals will choose options that meet basic decision criteria. https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/resources/mini-encyclopedia-of-be/


[6] DENICOL J, DAVIES A, KRYSTALLIS I (2020), What are the Causes and Cures of Poor Megaproject Performance? A Systemic Literature Review and Research Agenda, Project Management Journal, Vol. 00(0) 1–18

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