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3/7/2003
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Business Technology: Real-Time Business: More Than A Fad

Is real-time business real? Or is it a mythical construct, a hyped-up buzzword loaded with marketing fluff, designed to make people believe there's something of value behind all the empty talk? Will it endure as a strategic imperative, or will it go the way of The End of Bricks and Mortar?

We at InformationWeek have certainly been passionate advocates of the idea ever since we first began hearing faint echoes of it early last year and then continued to hear stronger signals over the ensuing several months. We launched our formal coverage of real-time business in September, and since then we've taken some shots from nonbelievers: It's a fad, it's a lie, it's not new, it won't work, it's everything, it's nothing, etc., etc., etc. (Remember the Saturday Night Live skit where, on Weekend Update, Bill Murray reported that yellow ties went out of fashion Friday at 10:30 a.m., but no one noticed because they came back into fashion the same day at 2:30?) Well, I'm not quite ready to say that doing business in real time--that is, at the speed of the customer and the markets you're serving--will prevent the common cold or cure a golf slice that took 20 years to perfect, but any tiny doubts I might have been harboring about the power and potential of this phenomenon were blown away last week. And the obliterators of any doubt were the speakers and attendees at our Spring Conference: Real-Time Business: Creating Visibility For Innovation.

Executives from Ace Hardware, Blockbuster, Dell Computer, FedEx, General Motors, Georgia-Pacific, Harris, Procter & Gamble, Schneider National, and many others described in remarkable detail the value they're extracting from enhanced business processes, collaborative information-sharing, refocused management objectives, and new technologies that are combining to get all of those businesses and their partners closer to their customers. And we can here define "closer" as more familiar with, more attuned to, more aware of, and more valuable to. To get there, these presenters said, they've had to initiate massive change, particularly in reorienting behavior to wring out inefficiencies and optimize customer interactions. As Dell president and chief operating officer Kevin Rollins said, the company got its inventory levels down to four days' worth in the middle of the year, and was pretty happy with that, but then decided if it could get it to four then why not three? So it hit three days in the fourth quarter. And before the celebrations started, Rollins said, the company asked, "Well, if it only takes two hours to fully assemble a computer, then why do we need to have three days of inventory on hand?" And so the next wave of analysis started--is it possible to keep cutting time out of the system so that ideas like dynamic or real-time pricing can be explored?

Or as FedEx executive VP and CIO Rob Carter put it, his company is in the business of engineering time. And the more that those engineering efforts can be deployed on the customer end rather than on the FedEx end, the happier that customer is going to be. P&G CIO and chief business-to-business officer Steve David described the enormous transformations his company is undertaking to achieve a real-time status with end-to-end visibility across his entire network of suppliers, partners, retailers, and customers.

So yeah, I gotta believe this one is very real. That's not to say it's easy or straightforward or painless; no, there'll no doubt be plenty of twists and turns and lots of pain along the way. But the goal is immensely powerful, and the alternative is grim. We hope you'll be able to join us for our next major gathering six months from now, when we assess how things are developing and share best practices at the InformationWeek Fall Conference: Real-Time Business: Optimizing Business Processes Across Your Extended Enterprise (see informationweek.com/events/03fall). Because if by then you haven't started to get real, it might be too late.

Bob Evans
Editor in Chief
bevans@cmp.com


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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