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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"Too much information freezes the human mind," says Accenture's Bell. "When there are too many choices, a normal human being won't be able to make a choice." Is business reaching the tipping point of information overload?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling 2005 book Blink, which looked at how we process information to make decisions, described doctors misdiagnosing heart attacks in the emergency room because they were attempting to gather too much information, in too many cases sending home patients who were actually having heart attacks and admitting patients who were not. According to Gladwell, the doctors were gathering and considering far more information than they really needed "because it makes them feel more confident.... The irony, though, is that that very desire for confidence is precisely what ends up undermining the accuracy of their decision. They feed the extra information into the already overcrowded equation they are building in their heads, and they get even more muddled."

An analogous situation is happening in IT departments. A 2006 survey by Netuitive, a real-time analysis software vendor, found that 41 percent of respondents in larger organizations receive 100 or more alerts per day, of which at least half (more in most cases) are false positives. Of the 195 IT organizations surveyed, 39 percent said that they either intentionally set thresholds above optimum levels to avoid excessive alerting or turned off their alerting functionality completely in response. In both cases, the system has been rendered pretty much useless.

Delta Apparel's Smith has seen how too many alerts can create a choke point. For example, when a Delta staffer creates an order, an e-mail goes out to a set of other employees who need to know. "In theory, that's a good practice," Smith says. "But if we're entering a thousand orders a day, and I'm a recipient, there's no way I could ever manage that information. No one can respond to a thousand e-mails a day."

But it's not just e-mail alerts. Typically, decision-makers in manufacturing companies think that they want daily updates for their material requirements planning (MRP) system so they can make changes to plans and update forecasts and inventories on a daily basis. And vendors selling MRP systems (surprise!) usually agree with them. But, "Guess what: Reality says I can't deal," Smith says. He says that companies simply cannot make those decisions on a daily basis because there's too much information and too much flux. "It's one of those concepts that's candy in the sky," he says.

Put another way, business managers and other decision-makers are sometimes surprised and overwhelmed by the velocity and volume of data when a real-time system fires up. "You get what you ask for, not what you expected," says AMR's Hagerty.

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