Smart data: business lessons from the Battle of Midway

I’ll take smart data over big data anytime. Smart data is all about interpreting data to make a wise decision, whether you’re trying to understand your customers or attempting to outsmart your competition. Seventy years ago, the U.S. Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy gave the world a dramatic demonstration of smart data in action during the Battle of Midway. The decisive and important naval victory for the United States still teaches lessons today about making wise choices with information.

As recounted in the recently published book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings, the battle of Midway unfolded June 4-7, 1942, near the Midway atoll. The Japanese forces, led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, conceived of the assault in order to achieve a knockout blow against the U.S. Navy — which was reeling only six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and military setbacks shortly thereafter.  But the U.S. forces, led by Admiral Chester M. Nimitz, held a distinct advantage: its codebreakers had broken the JN-25 code used by Japanese forces to communicate with each other. The U.S. knew where the Japanese were going to strike and used that information to repulse the attack. But of course breaking the code in and of itself did not guarantee victory. The deciding factors were:

1. A bold decision

Breaking the code meant that the Americans expected Midway to be the target – but even still, no one knew for sure. Someone had to decide whether to place faith in the accuracy of the intelligence uncovered by U.S. Commander Joseph Rochefort – at a time when intelligence gathering was an inexact science at best. Writes Hastings: “[E]xactitude of knowledge was still lacking. In a vast ocean, it remained hard to pinpoint ships, or even fleets . . . despite Commander Rochefort’s magnificent achievement, uncertainty and chance characterized Midway.”

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