Whether you have seen films portraying Alan Turing or whether you have actually been to Bletchley Park itself, the media interest in all things codes and how breaking the Enigma cryptographic shorten WW2 is great material in our thirst for history and insight into how our technological world has developed.
In brief, Bletchley Park is the story of a labyrinth of buildings, staffed by thousands of code breakers, mathematicians, linguists and analysts who began by tackling the insurmountable ( and believed impossible ) task of breaking the codes used by German forces.
You will be immersed in a world of machinery or things of all shapes and sizes, all designed with the specific purpose of automating the analysis of many different cryptographic systems. One glimpse of the Enigma machine engineering up close, or the Colossus machine with its pulleys and flashing lights, will I’m sure make you realise the extent to which mankind needed to use machines to solve a real world and life threatening ( business ) problem.
You see back in those days, the mathematicians and code-breakers of Bletchley Park faced a business problem that in many ways has echoes of the problems our businesses face today.
The nature of the German cryptographic systems and the extensive communication network spread wide across all spheres of battle covering thousands of square miles, meant that the British teams were faced with a very real Big Data challenge. In fact a 159 Million, Million, Million possible settings every day challenge!
The German forces had created an enormous network of connected machines ( called Engima ) that they used to drive their operations forward. The British forces faced with the challenge of understanding their enemy’s next steps, built machines to ‘crack the code’ and give their leaders’ the actionable insight necessary to protect forces, save lives and ultimately, shorten the war. In a way, the British ‘connected the unconnected’ to solve their problem.
Every day the wheel settings of the German machines were changed, meaning the window to collect, process, analyse and compute to an actionable outcome created a volume and velocity of data that outweighed any previous human effort to draw out the intelligence hidden in the messages intercepted.
The Bletchley Park code-breakers’ had less than 18 hours every day to understand the Enigma machine settings and start reading the stream of messages, in search for the intelligence that they could use to help divert convoys, redirect forces and give military planners time to ‘think’.
Hence the confidence from the German military that the messages they were transmitting at a huge scale across their network would be safe from any eavesdropping. In effect, the British could hear the messages but were thwarted by the sheer size of the data and the velocity of possible interpretations of the messages. Humans were not the answer, and a machine was needed to overcome what was believed to be a problem that our brains couldn’t ‘think quickly enough’.
Put like this the work at Bletchley Park is an incredibly relevant metaphor for the business challenges today. It is becoming clear that those businesses that survive and prosper are those that think differently, and have the ability to generate more value from information they already collect. The ability to connect things together, whether it is a machine talking to another machine to optimse a business process, or a machine that collects data and passes it to a software component that exposes previously hidden information, is at the heart of a digitally forward thinking business.
For the Germans and British the concept of ‘things’ were the machines used to transmit, receive and decrypt data. Yet for a modern business, these ‘things’ are very different machines but the outcome is very similar. In both scenarios, the goal was the need to get better insight into data. In the case of WW2, the prize was a very serious and human story-line. In the case of a modern business, the goal is often the ability to improve customer experience, create new business lines or optimise the performance of a particular operational process.
For this I believe, there is total synergy between the work at Bletchley Park and a modern business. 70 years later, businesses are realising that the inability of current methods to collect and crunch data to gain insight to drive an action is what is slowing them down. Just like the code-breakers who used machines to put them back in the battle during WW2, business leaders’ are using machines to put them back into their opportunities to gain competitive edge.
So if you have an inquisitive and open minded side then it might be worth a trip down to Bletchley Park, especially if you are responsible for making decisions on how your business needs to think differently. You may be excited with what you see, and I hope you gain a little insight into how to use machines to collect invaluable actionable insight.
And worse case I am convinced you will have a great day out! And a nice cup of tea as well.