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Business Real-time Analytics: Seeing the Wood from the Trees

Posted on: 10-12-2015 15:29:571219


With the conference season now in full swing, it’s easy to get carried away with latest trend predictions and the hype cycle surrounding new technological achievements. The key is to be able to quickly differentiate between those things that constitute real knowledge and those that are just noise. One of the terms that has caught my eye however is ‘business real-time.

The rise of big data and in-memory technologies has created an eagerness for vendors to place the words real-time next their latest product or service offering; believing speed of data analysis creates a competitive advantage to their customers and a point of difference for them. Customers have noticed this, and are often convinced into believing that this will enable them to meet the ever increasing pressure caused by a constantly on-line, on-demand consumer base. As with anything, the sparkle soon fades as expectations adapt. Real-time moves from being a point of difference, to simply a base expectation. This means that any products that fail to meet this simple criterion, will be disregarded and given less attention than they might deserve.

From an industry perspective, if you are a food based FMCG company dealing in products with an incredibly short shelf-life, such as baked goods, real-time insights is probably a necessity and not a luxury. However, for the vast majority of businesses, particularly in the world of B2B, they need time to take stock of the current supply and demand situation; time for systems to run calculations, time to make adjustments, re-prioritize and reschedule. The term ‘business real time’ therefore relates to periods of time that are appropriate for that industry – from two hourly snapshots of performance down to daily measuring and re-planning. It means providing an organization with the ability to extract insights within a time-frame that meets their business needs; something which will differ from one organization to the next.

The tendency however is for management to be caught in the headlights of Amazon effect; to fear the impact of a new incumbent into the industry that they feel will have to have access to information that is ‘up-to-the-second’. The question is – what do you do with this data when you have it?

For a product to qualify as business real-time, it must be able to provide the insights required to positively impact change, whilst the timing at which these insights are made available enables proactive decision making without delaying the business cycle. The ability to provide insights that can be acted on – or ‘actionable insight’. The unquantifiable nature of this term makes is fairly ambiguous. Whilst a product might qualify as business real-time for one particular customer, that same product might fail to the meet the business needs of another.

Business real-time in the baking industry would be so slim, that a need for real-time insights would arguably still existA late delivery or stock issue could be catastrophic for products that hold such a short life cycle. Nobody wants to buy or sell stale bread, whereas other industries have strategic buffers of inventory throughout the supply chain that means that any variation in demand or supply is absorbed without any direct impact on customer service.


The key is strategic segmentation of needs. Every business has numerous Value Chains that exist within their organization, and understanding the specific needs of the customers that make up each segment allows the business to know whether they have access to insights in a time-frame that allows them to adapt and react appropriately without knee-jerking. Insights that allow them to take action based on an understanding of the root cause of bottlenecks and which are in line with the strategic goals of that segment.

I once advised the head of an organization who was convinced that the answer to his company’s ills was to create competitive space by offering all customers a four-hour delivery promise across his entire product range – for free.  Luckily, I managed to persuade him to reconsider and instead we carefully segmented the product groups and service offering based on the needs of the different groups of customers. Four-hour delivery was still available – but at a cost and only on a certain range of products. Likewise guaranteed availability was offered on other products – ‘never out of stock’ was the promise for this segment. Neither of these required up-to-the-second analytical capabilities – ½ day snapshots combined with the transactional data from the ERP system was fine – and in every case the customers were delighted with the new level of service that was provided. 

Although real-time analytics still remains the ultimate dream for many, often what is being provided is simply data and not actionable insights. Insights take time; a moment to understand – and it is difficult to understand what is going on when the target keeps moving and the demand signal keeps changing. Timing, communication and cross-process integration is key, but many organizations will continue to miss the opportunity to see what is really going on through an ill-advised pursuit of true real-time capability. When everything is just a blur, seeing the wood from the trees is difficult – and this is when mistakes are made.

Establishing what constitutes business real-time and providing actionable insights for your company might help you make smarter, not just faster, decisions. 

Sean Culey
Value Chain Thought Leader

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