The Organizational Challenges Of Real-Time Business

Pete Swabey

The digital revolution has set the expectation that information should be available—and transactions processed—in an instant. For businesses, this means that customers expect access to up-to-the-minute information, such as the availability of products or the status of deliveries, at the swipe of their smartphone.

Indeed, real-time information is a vital element for many of the most engaging and valuable digital experiences that customers currently enjoy. Uber, the ride-hailing app, owes much of its popularity to its ability to locate nearby drivers in real time, for example.

Meanwhile, employees, especially senior managers, increasingly expect the same speed and access to the same up-to-date quality of information at work as they receive from apps, social networks, and search engines. Accessing operational or performance metrics in real time, as opposed to receiving retrospective reports, allows managers to address issues as they arise, or even predict them.

Companies must consider how real-time information will affect their customer and employee experiences

According to a survey of more than 800 business and IT leaders across Europe, North America, Latin America, and Asia-Pacific, conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and sponsored by SAP, 20% of respondents are looking to digital transformation initiatives and technologies to enable them to operate as a real-time business. But it is likely that many more companies will move towards real-time business in order to support other objectives, such as creating a more engaging customer experience or improving operational efficiency.

The move from an era in which information systems provide retrospective and summary data to the real-time age will require a number of technical changes. But it will also pose organisational challenges that businesses will need to consider as part of their digital transformation strategy.

The first derives from the fact that real-time business will precipitate a fresh wave of automation. If a transaction requires some kind of decision, that decision must be automated to enable a real-time response. This means that some decisions which are currently taken by human employees will in future become algorithmically determined. That will change the way in which businesses are governed; they will increasingly need to be able to understand and audit the rules underpinning their automated decisions, which may challenge today’s governance mechanisms.

The employee experience

Another challenge is the impact that real-time data will have on the way people work. Real-time access to data is one of the pillars underpinning the Agile methodology: It allows teams to develop systems iteratively, giving them instant feedback on how new features and additional functionality have impacted performance. This pattern of iterative improvement and continuous feedback is increasingly being deployed beyond software-development teams, especially in marketing.

But companies should also be mindful of the psychological impact of real-time information. One reason why consumer web services provide real-time updates through their apps and sites is that it makes them addictive: If there’s always something new to see, it can become very tempting to look. There’s no reason why this principle shouldn’t be harnessed to make internal applications more engaging, and therefore better adopted. However, without structure and discipline, real-time data could also add to the growing sense of information overload which many employees already suffer.

This is just one of the ways in which digital transformation will affect the employee experience, and it is not something that IT departments have traditionally considered. IT leaders would be advised to open a dialogue with their peers in HR (if they have not already done so) about how real-time information—and digital technology in general—can be used to create a productive, but not unduly anxious, working environment.

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Pete Swabey

About Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey is a senior editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit's thought leadership division in EMEA; he is also global lead for the tech sector. He specializes in technology and has managed research projects on topics including digital transformation, the hyperconnected economy, the future of work, and the evolution of marketing. He has presented this research at a range of conferences and has moderated discussions at a number of The Economist Group's own events. Before joining The Economist Group in October 2013, Pete was editor of enterprise IT magazine and Web site Information Age and head of technology research for business-to-business publisher Vitesse Media.