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Common Operational Picture Defined

February 26, 2019

Developing a common operational picture (COP) is an essential step toward asserting command and control over high-stakes scenarios.

In critical situations, making the right decisions relies on a three-dimensional understanding of the strategic environment. For military commanders, first responders, civilian administrators, chief operating officers, and supply chain managers alike, having robust situational awareness over real-time events is essential.

Developing this situational awareness calls for a suite of technology that leverages assets in the field to provide decision-makers with the up-to-date and accurate information they need to manage evolving threats and other scenarios. In the military, this concept is known as a common operational picture, or COP. And while the concept (and supporting technology) of a COP is still a lynchpin in any military chain of command, more and more industries are taking advantage of its tactical potential to manage their own operations.

From managing security threats on university campuses to rerouting shipping fleets during supply chain disruptions, a robust common operational picture can mean the difference between a bad decision and a good one. As more and more industries — from industrial manufacturing to transportation and logistics — recognize the importance of situational awareness, many are beginning to invest in technology to deliver a common operational picture to keep organizational stakeholders on the same page.

 

What is a Common Operational Picture?

The military still depends on COPs — only instead of paper maps and hand-written munitions counts, they’re looking at intelligent digital maps that incorporate and contextualize thousands of data streams and millions of data points. Moreover, access to command-center intelligence is no longer limited to the decision-makers in the room. With real-time data production and delivery, COPs can be shared between decision-makers across the world — and with boots on the ground at the tactical edge.

As the COP concept has matured, it’s been increasingly applied to other fields and industries. Many businesses have relied on common operational pictures for decades, but as the term gains more and more acceptance outside of military circles, organizations from law enforcement agencies to ski resorts are borrowing not only the military’s concept of a common operational picture, but some of its technologies as well.

Through advanced software and hardware, COP technology brings together disparate data streams; and although the sources of this data differ from one industry to the next, they’re all essentially designed for the same purpose — delivering actionable intelligence in real-time to improve organizational decision-making.

For instance, in a military application, commanders might use drones in the air and sensors on the ground to help soldiers in the field better understand what they’re up against. In shipping and logistics, on the other hand, onboard hardware can help supply chain managers track vehicle locations while sensors within containers provide updated information on the status of individual shipments.

 

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What is the Value of a Common Operational Picture?

By merging sensors with sophisticated data integration and delivery systems, COPs provide both central headquarters (whether the command room or the board room) and field assets (whether soldiers or truck drivers) with end-to-end visibility over their operations. The COP’s single source of truth offers decision-makers comprehensive situational awareness, while downstream assets get only the information that will help them execute on their own specific tasks. When implemented thoughtfully and appropriately, a common operational picture should benefit the entirety of the organization from the top down.

Imagine a city government struggling to bring utilities back online after a power outage, natural disaster, or other crisis scenario. With a common operational picture, governmental decision-makers can access real-time information on the location of responders, the availability of resources, and the status of key assets. What’s more, those out in the field can understand how they fit into the larger recovery operation.

 

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Where Are COPs Being Used?

COPs continue to be mission-critical to military operations. However, as the nature of threats change — including increasingly frequent natural disasters and the rise of mass shootings — more organizations are realizing the importance of cutting-edge crisis response technology. To that end, COPs are becoming a larger part of threat management strategies across both military and civilian, and both public and private sectors.

For instance, many campus security departments deploy COP technology to provide security personnel with the information they need to protect students, faculty, and staff, both in crisis scenarios and in everyday patrols. Shipping and logistics businesses rely on their own common operational pictures to proactively manage the fast-paced nature of the e-commerce economy. Even large venues like stadiums benefit from a COP as they keep a secure perimeter around public events.

 

How Can COPs Be Used in the Future?

COPs will continue to hold down a pivotal role in military operations, law enforcement agencies, and organizations looking to respond to crisis scenarios. Increasingly, however, both the concept and the technology of the common operational picture are being applied to new industries. For decision-makers tasked with optimizing internal business processes, neutralizing threats, and safeguarding assets, it’s essential to invest in the development of an organization-wide common operational picture that’s capable of delivering the level of situational awareness needed to make well-informed, competitive decisions.

As the IoT proliferates, and wireless technologies advance, COPs will only become more sophisticated, more responsive, and more tightly integrated into organizational operations. With the incredible speed of technological advancement and the widespread adoption of COP systems, we should expect a very different iteration of the COP to emerge in the coming decade.