Conway’s Law and Radar

Conway’s Law is a useful paradigm for thinking about system design and a valuable perspective for understanding the evolution of the U.S. Navy’s use of radar in early World War II. Conway’s Law states that “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

In most cases, this means that any system mirrors the structure of the organization that created it since communication patterns often flow along the lines of organizational charts. There are exceptions to this, but it is a very important constraint to keep in mind when thinking about system or solution design. Often, a crucial step in creating an effective solution is to adjust the organizational and communication structure to better fit the needs of the solution design, a technique that has come to be called the “inverse Conway maneuver.”

Destroyer Charles Ausburne, DD 570, has multiple radar sets visible, one for fire control atop the director and two search radars on the mast.
Destroyer Charles Ausburne, DD 570

These concepts can be seen in the development of the U.S. Navy’s early radar sets. Their design and use reflected the Navy’s established organizational structures. The Navy developed two different types of radar, search and fire control, and each type was developed by a different technical bureau. Unsurprisingly, fire control radar was developed by the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance, which was responsible for guns, armor, and fire control systems. Search radars were developed by the Navy’s Bureau of Ships, which was responsible for most aspects of ship design and development.

Segmenting radar development this way made sense because the radar sets could be built using the Navy’s existing technical expertise. For fire control, this worked very well. Radar augmented fire control systems by providing accurate ranges, allowing guns to get on target very quickly. This ability was demonstrated before the war and numerous times in its first year. Even at the Battle of Savo Island, U.S. Navy cruisers got on target faster—as measured by the time from opening fire to securing the first hit—than the Imperial Japanese Navy ships that sank them. However, because the Japanese had the advantage of surprise, they hit first and overwhelmed the U.S. cruisers before they could hit more than a handful of times.

“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

MelVin E. Conway

Radar worked well when it augmented established structures and paradigms. This was the case with fire control. It was not the case with search radars. Unlike fire control radars, search radars did not plug into an existing well-defined system. Instead, search radars provided a new capability, one that far exceeded traditional methods of identifying and tracking nearby ships and planes. In effect, search radars provided a new way to “make sense” of the surrounding environment, a process that had traditionally occurred in the minds of ship captains and formation commanders.

Those officers had been aided in this work by plots, visualizations that tracked the location of friendly ships and potential enemy targets. Plots placed a ship or formation in context and helped officers make sense of their surroundings. Following the established paradigm, information from early search radars was fed into a “radar plot” that ship captains and formation commanders could use. However, the increasing quantity of information made available by radar kept radar plots from being an adequate solution.

The problem was that responsibility for “making sense” of the surrounding environment still fell to the senior officer, the ship captain or the formation commander. They had to assess information from multiple sources—the radar plot, observations of lookouts, reports from the radio—and then decide what it meant. In combat, they were unable to keep up with all these details. The problem was that there was too much information and that too much of the available information was erroneous or suspect; there was too much “signal” and the “signal to noise” ratio was too high. Much of the hesitation and uncertainty on the part of U.S. Navy officers in the early night battles of 1942 off Guadalcanal can be traced back to this challenge.

Conway’s Law was at play. The “system” the U.S. Navy initially implemented with radar reflected the division of labor across the two technical bureaus. Where radar could augment existing approaches, as with fire control, it performed well. Where it stressed existing approaches, as it did with the need to make sense of battle, it did not perform well. To escape these limitations, the Navy had to acknowledge Conway’s Law, move beyond established organizational structures, and design a new “system” based on new communication patterns, especially aboard ship. 

The Combat Information Center met that need. It was a new approach that broke the established paradigm of how ship captains and formation commanders made sense of the world around them. Responsibility for that vital activity shifted from them as individuals and onto a cross-functional team of radar operators, plotters, and a trained “evaluator” who could assess all available information, regardless of its origin, separate signal from noise, and turn it into actionable intelligence that the ship captain and formation commander could use. 

The siloed approach to radar faded into the background. The technical bureaus still worked on radar sets within their area of expertise, but the shipboard organization that made use of them fundamentally changed. A new integrated mechanism for assessing all combat information replaced traditional structures and brought together multiple functions in a cross-functional team. In hindsight, and armed with knowledge of Conway’s Law, this makes perfect sense. 

However, the lesson of the Navy’s experience is that what seems obvious in hindsight can be extremely difficult to work through in the moment. Advanced technologies often stress organizations and their existing structures in similar ways. Those that can revise and adapt their structures to more effectively take advantage of new technologies have a distinct advantage. Preserving that ability, to adapt, adjust, and revise structure—not just adopt new technologies—is essential for navies, for military forces, and for today’s organizations.

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