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What is Interoperability?

Interoperability was coined by the information technology (IT) world in an attempt to define an ideal way for computers and other electronic devices to relate to each other.

 Some simple examples:

1.)    Any USB device (thumb drive, memory stick, peripheral) is interoperable with any modern computer terminal’s corresponding USB port—you plug them together and you get results. Meaning: there is barrier-free information exchange between the computer and the USB memory stick. And this information is totally transportable to secondary computers, printers and other peripherals, because the USB storage device was designed in accordance with interoperability standards.

2.)    Any VHS source material is totally inoperable with a Beta playback machine. This means that no information exchange between the VHS cassette and the Beta playback equipment ever occurred, because they were designed to incompatible standards.

Although NCOIC has a great interest in the ‘how’ of computer relationships, our primary focus is the ‘how’ of achieving a state of interoperability that engages technology, people organizational mission, value and culture in collaborations to exchange information, knowledge or services—so that all can advance mission or business success. This is how NCOIC defines interoperability.

Further, NCOIC’s unique role goes one step beyond to address global ‘cross-domain’ interoperability. As one example: how to bring the military domain’s knowledge into the emergency first responders’ domain, with positive results.  Both are engaged in vital operations, and both need to achieve similar results in their respective arenas of operation.

Interoperability’s growth and unforeseen benefits:

  Advisory Council Interoperability LeadersNeutral EnvironementCustomer Activites ImplementationCross-Domain Interoperability Tools

Nowhere are the benefits of interoperability more striking than in the ongoing development of the World Wide Web (W3). From an infant 1990s Internet that was defined by competing networks and little e-mail compatibility, today’s Web plays a pivotal role in our daily lives.  For many “netizens” the Web is library, bank, shopping bazaar, e-postal service, research assistant, social networking outlet and much more. Anyone who has an email address or access to the World Wide Web is a member of the world’s largest and most interoperable network.  

What made the Web work was the collaboration of industry partners who formed the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).  Together they identified, agreed to, and applied common technology and open standards to the development of their own products. In doing so, they broke down the Internet’s operational barriers and linked the world via the now ubiquitous “www.”  

Then, with exponentially developing opportunities, new e-companies sprung up: EBay, Amazon, Wikipedia, Linked-in and FaceBook—just to name a few. Early adapter hardware and software suppliers, whose new products were based on the W3C’s standards, literally drove the market and were hugely successful. The bonus to Web customers was increasingly seamless and increasingly global communications interoperability.  In 1987 the conversation was about how many people in a business could access a computer.  In 1991 the conversation was how to network all the computers that the business controlled. Today a computational device that is not networked-enabled is irrelevant. Tomorrow all devices will be networked and interoperable.

Interoperability benefits that date back to the 1950s:

Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the early 1950s with the launch of the U.S. Interstate Highway system, which eventually became an interoperable national transportation network.  Before the 50s Americans drove on two-lane roads that were built to conform to state or community standards. From one locale to another, construction methods differed as did road signage and other factors that made driving less safe and more unpredictable, especially in areas where three-lane roads existed.  In preparation for the massive interstates’ roll-out government agencies and highway developers agreed to national standards as the foundation of the interstate transportation network.  Some of these included minimum heights for overpasses and tunnels; safe design of on/off ramps; lane widths and contours that could support higher speed limits, and signage that drivers would recognize quickly.

As millions of Americans took to the roads, the need for traveler services along interstate routes grew annually.  National franchises saw how the new highways made family vacations safer, quicker, easier and more attractive. Well-known gasoline, food and hospitality brands began to appear on or near interstate route; McDonalds soon replaced “Marsha’s Café” and Holiday Inn edged out “Joe’s Motel.” Most travelers liked the predictability of a brand that they knew, and  early adapter franchise companies captured the market for interstate highway services.

Companies which developed construction materials that supported the Interstate Highway’s new standards also prospered.  In time, the trucking industry saw the advantages of bigger vehicles that could move freight over long hauls, and at reasonably constant speeds.  This gave rise to eighteen-wheelers with built-in beds and an entire industry that designed and produced them.  

From the 1950s Interstate Highway transport network to today’s World Wide Web, interoperability has significant economic consequences, in addition to the benefits that it brings to our lives.

For instance, a recent NCOIC market study indicates that in 2009 the U.S. aerospace /defense and IT market sectors spent more than $180 billion dollars to address interoperability challenges.  That’s about one-third of the sector’s overall $630 billion market sector size. (Source: Global One.)
The major reasons for this striking allocation of government funds are:

1.) A global proliferation of asymmetrical threats that intensifies U.S. and coalition forces’ need to interoperate seamlessly at the operational and technical levels and,

2.) A desire to achieve interoperability that spans national, departmental and organizational boundaries.

Neither the U.S., nor its global aerospace/ defense/ IT sector partners, can afford to ignore the value that interoperability can bring to their peacekeepers, warfighters, air traffic managers and emergency responders. Not the least of these advantages are seamless information-sharing and collaborative decision-making among the diverse partners.

Tip Slater of NCOIC addresses this fundamental questions of interoperability.  Other NCOIC leaders will address these and other advantages of cross-domain interoperability in subsequent editions of this column. Among future topics are global air traffic management, emergency first response, military coalition operations, health care, cyber security and banking.

NCOIC encourages readers to submit comments about this article, or to suggest ideas for future articles. Please contact


For the nine years beginning in 2004, NCOIC’s global industry and government members have collaborated to create interoperability tools, patterns and demonstrations worth approximately $100 million. The resources are posted on this website and are available free of charge. The NCOIC is convinced that interoperability is “the value stream generator” for any organization that can achieve it. Interoperability is also the catalyst that terminates the value of companies that do not opt to employ it.

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