by Mike Lynch

Real-time delays

Mar 19, 20124 mins
Networking Devices

The intensity of Mobile World Congress 2012 is over and Barcelona has returned to its usual more sedate pace.

For the last week of February, inside the halls of the Fira de Barcelona companies large and small, new and old, touted their wares to hundreds of thousands of visitors.

These goods ranged from the tangible new tablets and waterproof smartphones to invisible innovations such as 4G networks and near field communications.

Regardless of whether it’s through clever outerwear or hidden chipsets, human ingenuity was really the winner as, once again, we have trumped the previous year’s congress with faster, smarter, leaner and more efficient gadgets.

This year, however, there was another story unfolding not far from the doors of the Fira as thousands of students took to the streets to protest against cuts in education spending in a country where youth unemployment currently stands at 50 per cent.

While the future in all its glory of blinking lights and high-pitched sounds was very much in evidence at the Fira, on the streets of Barcelona, that future seemed out of the grasp of many.

A similar analogy can be found in the enterprise, where technology promises so much and yet the humans in charge of its deployment and management do not always reap the full benefits.

Take the notion of real-time.

Almost every technology company states that they deliver services or results in real-time, or help business leaders make decisions in real-time.

But is the concept at risk of being de-valued? Indeed, is the concept even real anyway? In the days when shopkeepers knew all their customers by name, they also kept a mental inventory of the wares in the storeroom.

They knew, in real-time, how many tins of peaches were left in the back room.

Today, the descendants of those shopkeepers won’t know their customers by name, nor how many tins of food are in the storeroom because they don’t have to.

They depend on customer loyalty cards to deliver information on consumer preferences, and a database informs them of the levels of supplies.

Probably, to be fair, with a greater degree of accuracy than the mental inventory of their ancestors. So far, so real-time.

Now, let’s assume today’s shopkeeper is running a promotion in his store and offering a deal on brand of cereal.

Using those customer loyalty cards and his database, he can very easily stay abreast of how the promotion is going on, as the cereal boxes whiz by the till.

But what if the information doesn’t meet his expectations? What if it turns out that, even with the deal, the cereal isn’t selling at a faster pace?

Does he consider the promotion a failure and leave it at that? Does he improve on the deal? Does he change the brand of cereal on offer?

Let’s take this example a step further. If the store in question is not a small family-run business but a supermarket chain, the technology is still delivering answers on the success of the cereal promotion in real-time but you can bet your bottom dollar that the executives in charge of the promotion are not acting on the information in real-time.

Human instinct finds it hard to accept failure. A promotion that will have cost a few thousand pounds to set up dents a few egos along the way when it isn’t a success.

And the owners of those egos.Those who masterminded and project-managed the promotion, will look at that real-time data in disbelief and take days to act on it, if at all.

This is a simple and harmless example of what happens when technology delivers on its promise.

Much like the differences inside and outside the Fira de Barcelona, the future is here, you just have to embrace it.

And man, as we know, is slow to embrace the future.

So technology deals on its promise: it delivers answers in real-time. But the humans in charge are slow to act on it.

The same thing applied in Barcelona: thousands of people inside a convention centre, holding the future in their hands, while on the streets thousands of young people were staring that same future in the face and finding it a dismal and desolate place.

There remains this dissonance between human ingenuity — Finding increasingly clever ways to make technology work for us and provide us with these insights in real-time — and our capacity to act on this information.

It’s not our ability to analyse this information that is in question, we have already proved that we are good at that, but our ability to change our own attitudes so we can keep up.