The Perils and Promise of Real-Time Data

As the demand for real-time data increases, as more and more information flows into the enterprise and its systems, the challenge of understanding and managing it grows proportionately. And sometimes, more is just too much.

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Rose is confident, however, that Priceline is using all that near-real-time data to make better business decisions and provide a highly available website with fewer and fewer instances in which any of those 70,000 things that can go wrong do.

Everybody Loves Data

Moving to a real-time information-delivery environment like Priceline's has long been an ambition for many companies. Real-time capabilities in business performance dashboards, systems monitoring applications, business intelligence software and supply chain management tools have propagated as companies struggle to keep up with the demands of 24/7 global operations. According to a September 2006 Teradata survey, 85 percent of responding executives say that decision-makers need more up-to-date information than in the past.

But as many companies have long known, more information, delivered more frequently, hasn't always led to faster or better decision making.

The real-time boom has introduced some unintended busts: overwhelmed business users and IT managers drowning in too much information, with floods of irrelevant business activity alerts and system performance data leading them to make rash decisions or turn off real-time applications altogether. "If you're not giving real-time data to the right people, at the right time, you're opening up yourself to a lot of risk," says David Williams, research VP of IT operations management at Gartner.

Of course, by itself, providing data in real-time isn't dangerous. "Real-time information is always useful if you know how to make sense of it," says Hau Lee, the Thoma Professor of Operations, Information and Technology at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. "That 'if' is the problem."

Indeed, there are a steep learning curve and cultural change in a real-time environment that many organizations underestimate. "Everybody is crying for this data, but when you give it to them, they find fault with it," says Heineken USA Director of IT Carol Schillat. "And the fault is that they don't know how to use it." Ill-planned real-time data implementations can be disastrous, negatively affecting customers, profits and productivity, according to Teradata's survey.

To avoid the heartbreak of a failed real-time romance, CIOs need to understand which information their company really needs, how that information matches up with the way the business users do their jobs, and how and when it's most beneficial to deliver that information. Once that analysis is complete, CIOs can install a process and IT system that delivers more actionable and correctly timed data flows. "If the business folks haven't provided that level of detail, and IT didn't ask for it, the system can provide not enough or too much information," says Kevin Poole, consulting services leader at Capgemini. And in either case, "[business users] will start to ignore it."

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