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Lost at Sea: Lessons Learned from a Disconnected Data Disaster

sos graphic lost at sea lessons learned from a disconnected data disaster
5 min read
Published: February 4, 2020
Last Updated: August 9, 2023

Tragic events unfolded in the fall of 1707 when the British Royal Navy accidentally ran ashore at the Isles of Scilly, killing nearly 2,000 sailors and destroying four prized warships. The costly disaster was one of the worst in all of maritime history.

The greatest atrocity of this entire event—which took more lives than the sinking of the Titanic—was that the entire mishap was completely preventable.

Keep reading to find out what went wrong and how you can apply those lessons to today's high-stakes business environment.

Trustworthy decisions require trustworthy data

So what went wrong? Ultimately, this disaster was initiated by four key factors.

First, the crew suffered from inaccurate data. The nautical charts used at the time were fraught with errors. 

In addition to foundational data, inaccurate pilot books caused by human error created more flawed data points.

Then, there was the matter of inadequate hardware. The compasses used at the time weren’t reliable. Pendulum-driven compasses didn’t work well on ships due to waves and other forces. And spring-wound clocks, their micro-sized descendants, had yet to become very accurate in the 200 years since they had been invented. In fact, they could lose as much as 4 minutes for every 24 hours—which at sea, can add up to 60 miles in a single day.

But the fourth and most important factor? Their inability to predict longitude. That's where connected data played a pivotal role.

Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his current latitude at sea by the length of the day or the height of the sun. However, to determine longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard the ship AND what time it is at the home port (or another place of known longitude) at the exact same moment. The two data points together enable the navigator to convert the difference into a geographical separation.

Innovation connects data

This naval disaster forced the English Parliament to create the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the Board of Longitude and led to large financial rewards for anyone who could find a method of accurately determining longitude at sea.

Wild inventions started to spill in from everywhere. For example, one inventor proposed shooting rockets into the sky from 600 barges in the Atlantic at midnight each night—a solution that would have cost as much as the entire British GDP at the time. Another concept involved wounding dogs and putting them on board each ship in the hopes that they would all howl at the same time thousands of miles away through a shared psychic signal between each animal (yes, really).

Needless to say, none of those ideas made it very far.

A suitable timepiece was eventually built by a man named John Harrison, a self-taught carpenter turned clockmaker. His solution later became known as the marine chronometer. In fact, it became the inspiration for the small portable timepiece many of us wear on our wrists today. It acquired the name "watch" from sailors who used it to replace the hourglasses they used to time their four-hour shifts of duty, or watches.

Quality data turns into a competitive advantage

The amazing and most important aspect of this story is how quickly Great Britain profited from their newly found navigational capability. Not only did the chronometer save lives, preventing seagoing navigators from crashing into rocks, but it also helped propel Britain to become a world power through the discovery of new territories, expansion of global markets, and establishing military dominance.

The key to global expansion and market dominance? You guessed it—accurate data.

300 years later and it’s still easy to feel lost at sea

Although we have better tools and technology today, countless corporations covering the globe still often leave their employees hanging on for dear life when it comes to trusted and accurate information.

Just like those early sailors, great analysts can derive reports and figures that will help steer their companies into a specific direction But having trusted context and narrative—connected together like the lines of latitude and longitude—is what you need to head in the correct direction.

Yet, this exercise in relying on trusted data to drive management reporting remains a challenge for many. In a recent study, 62% of business executives make regular business decisions on gut feeling or experience rather than actual data.

To avoid a decision-making disaster similar to the one that occurred at the Isles of Scilly, organizations still need that one key ingredient to navigate the ocean of data they have today: connectivity.

Connectivity is key

Like John Harrison, the engineers at Workiva solved a crucial technology gap others could not: connectivity. Our technology not only connects to the source of data (akin to the "home port" of old), but it accurately charts your progress as you travel along the analytics process and builds in the transparency to find where data came from.

Even though you might have thousands of teams working on hundreds of documents in dozens of places, when an inevitable question is raised or mistake is called out, you can easily trace your steps back to the source to find the answer and resolve any errors or issues.

Connected reporting and compliance

Having the right information to make critical decisions is still one of the most sought after advantages in the world today—it's just evolved from the captain's quarters to corporate boardrooms. Think of Workiva as your own chronometer, and begin leveraging the trust and transparency of Wdata to reinforce your decisions.

The Workiva connected platform enables you to trace the data all the way back to the source, and in many cases, helps you prevent a disastrous wrong turn as you navigate the seas of business intelligence.

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