What Is An Operational Environment? (With Examples)

By Kristin Kizer - Jan. 20, 2021

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If you’re in the military, then you’ve probably heard the term Operational Environment. Civilians don’t typically use this phrase, but it does have meaning outside of the military, and it is quite important.

Let’s dive deeper into the military and the civilian meanings behind an Operational Environment and then review its importance.

What Is an Operational Environment?

Operational Environment (OE), in a very broad sense, stands for the factors that make up the nature of an environment and how they can affect your operation. Breaking it down can help illuminate that definition:

  • Military Operational Environment. In terms used by the military, PMESII-PT is used to define the operational environment. That’s an acronym that stands for Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Environment, and Time. This tool looks at all of these datasets in a specific area and uses the information to prepare for and execute an operation.

    This is a simplistic example, but imagine that Troop B will invade Country A. By using PMESII-PT, the people planning this invasion operation will know the country’s climate, terrain, political environment, religious and cultural leanings, etc. All aspects of Country A will be reviewed to make the invasion by Troop B successful.

    Of course, invasions aren’t the only military operations, but this gives you an idea of how an operational environment can dictate how a military branch operates in one place versus another. We’ll further break down the PMESII-PT later, so you have a thorough understanding of the elements involved.

  • Civilian Operational Environment. While this is typically a military concept, it really relates to any business venture and has recently become a more popular term in the business world. Think of it as a review of the following in a work environment:

    • Political

    • Social

    • Legislative

    • Economic

    • Cultural

    • Natural environment

    In business, if you plan to open a factory in a city and you haven’t considered the operational environment, you’re probably setting yourself up to fail.

    You want to make sure your company is the right fit for the region and for the people who live there as well as the ones who will be working there. You also want to know that you’re establishing yourself in a way that will be accepted and successful.

Why Is It Important?

We’ve touched on why the operational environment is important but let’s detail how it can be crucial to the success or failure of a venture. In the military, the OE is dynamic.

While it is a composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and the decisions of a commander, any one fundamental change will change the entire operational environment. It’s subject to many variables, and they often change independently of each other, which creates a fluid atmosphere.

It’s crucial to note that the OE is a complex system and human behavior drives it. Many different people are doing different things within an OE, and that adds to the complexity. When the humans involved do not fully understand the culture in which they’re operating and the environment supported by the people who live there, the actions and outputs can be disastrous.

Operational Environment Classifications

You can see that a thorough understanding of where the military or even a business is operating can have everything to do with how they are received. To classify the environments in a very general way, there are three different environments:

  • Permissive environments. These are places that allow another country’s military forces to come in and conduct operations. Think of these countries as friendly ones who want the military there to protect their citizens or work with their military.

    They’re cooperative, and in most situations, they’re looking for assistance combating terrorism or other security threats within their borders or right over the border.

  • Hostile environments. These are countries where they have lost control of the population or the territory. It could be a place where there is an uprising of the people or another country has invaded and is attempting to take over.

  • Uncertain environment. This is treated very much like a hostile environment and, for the most part, is considered hostile. The only difference is that the host country still has some control, albeit limited.


The Army Doctrine Publication and Army Doctrine Reference Publication lists the eight operational variables. Once again, they are:

  • Political

  • Military

  • Economic

  • Social

  • Infrastructure

  • Information

  • Physical environment

  • Time

The framework of an operational environment includes each of those variables so the strategic environment can be analyzed, and then the results can be applied to all levels of learning. To fully understand how each of those areas works together, you need to understand what they mean independently:

  • Political. This is not just who is in power at the moment. In this variable, they look at the total political power within the OE. That means the official overarching government, any smaller governments like states or territories, and then recognized groups of influence that can include terrorists, cartels, influential families, and even individuals.

    The OE is not necessarily an entire country; it can be just a very small region. Even in smaller spaces, knowing the political structure and influences is very important.

  • Military. This looks at the military situation in an area. It can be the official military or terrorists, rebels, and all the rest of it. Knowing which groups are working together and which are unstable can obviously lead to the success or failure of a mission.

    In business, you can think of the competitors and suppliers and see how they create an interesting parallel to military forces in a country.

  • Economic. The economic variable looks at how a country or region is doing and what their imports and exports are, and what illegal economic activity there is.

    They also look at the economy’s basis, whether it’s agricultural, manufacturing-based, or technologically driven, or what combination there may be. The banking system is also an essential part of this equation.

  • Social. Social variables consider culture, religion, ethnic composition. Then it dives deeper into the beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors of the society. Population distribution and mapping cultural centers and diversity breakdowns are also critical in understanding a region.

  • Information. The information environment refers to the nature, scope, and effects of individuals, groups, and organizations on information. How is information disseminated to the people and among leading or dissenting factions?

    Think of it as a review of how controlled or open the media is within a region. That’s the easiest way to think of the information variable. But, of course, it can mean other things. It can mean what a government shares or what a company tells its employees.

  • Infrastructure. This area looks at the facilities, services, and installations needed for the target area to function. What are construction patterns, utilities and their functionality, and what transportation networks are there?

  • Physical environment. This variable looks at the geography and the man-made structures. On that count, it seems pretty self-explanatory. But the physical environment also considers weather and natural disasters.

  • Time. The timing and duration of activities within an operational environment are critical to the operation. What’s interesting is that while time is a constant, the way it’s seen isn’t.

    Different times and dates have different meanings, and the cultural perceptions of what is allowed during specific times can be crucial.

PMESII-PT and the Working World

PMESII-PT and its eight variables were designed specifically to be used as a military model and help advance military success worldwide. It’s one of the critical tools of the United States military in its strategic pursuits.

It has also found its way into the business world and is used by some companies to examine and assess external environments to optimize business and marketing efforts. Let’s look at how the shift in the eight variables translates in the business world:

  • Political. This time, the political element relates to foreign trade for a business and the aspects of doing so successfully.

  • Military. No longer concerned with the military (at least in most business applications), this variable is used to review your business competition.

  • Economic. This is a direct hit with business and looks at all aspects of the economy in which a company operates and where it does business. Of particular importance is how products will sell in other regions and the cost of doing business in certain areas.

  • Social. The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of customers or targeted customers are what’s important here. A company wants to appear to align its core values with that of its targeted market. This is the marketing sweet spot of information.

  • Information. Companies are gathering information in mass quantities these days. Often, they don’t even know what to do with all of the data they collect. Companies are developing new corporate branches that manage information and find ways to use it to the company’s benefit. This is a growing field.

  • Infrastructure. Within an organization, how does the infrastructure work? What is the flow of the company like, and where are potential problems or benefits.

  • Physical environment. In the military, this relates to the landscape and climate; in business, it can relate to the retail environment or the factory and corporate office environment.

    The military also uses this variable to look at the weather and natural disasters, two factors that can also play a significant role in some businesses.

  • Time. Timing is everything in business. The time from concept to market, the timing of sales, the right time to begin a marketing campaign. A key variable in business and military exploits alike.

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Kristin Kizer

Kristin Kizer is an award-winning writer, television and documentary producer, and content specialist who has worked on a wide variety of written, broadcast, and electronic publications. A former writer/producer for The Discovery Channel, she is now a freelance writer and delighted to be sharing her talents and time with the wonderful Zippia audience.

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