Food Engineering

Managing Software: Are you ready for real-time information?

April 17, 2003
The challenge lies in discerning the points of information that will make a difference from the trivial points.



Some of us remember the old days of information technology. Keypunch operators entered and then validated data entry and, at the accounting period close, IT ran a program that spun out the period-ending reports. Everyone in the company had until the next period end to figure out what was going on, what they would do to improve the business and make projections for the next period.

Today you would be hard pressed to find a keypunch operator in a food company. In addition, we are moving away from batch processing as fast as we can. Technology vendors can now deliver on their real-time promises. Financial packages have a close at the end of each business day and deliver a daily profit and loss report to management. On the production line, the systems monitor and control processes and provide a steady, unrelenting stream of data to operators and plant managers. In the warehouse we are on the cusp of a revolution through RFID technology that will instantly broadcast all the movement of inventories to ubiquitous sensors that will tell how things have changed, in real time. Real-time systems will send text messages to cell phone-enabled PDAs as pallets move from a loading dock to the nose of a truck.

These are just a few of the consequences of the real-time revolution in information technology. When we are thinking about real time systems, that old political question comes to mind, “Are you better off today than you were X number of years ago?” If you are in one of the companies that has endured the pain of batch processing and is looking forward to a real-time system, you may not appreciate the question. If you are in a real-time environment, you may already be enjoying the benefits of information overload.

A while back we were discussing IT strategy with a major international food company and we heard about a new information-timing problem. As the company had moved toward real-time information, each of their global operations scrambled to have the best information. Initially, their global business reviews turned into a “my information is newer and better than yours” discussion. In the end, IT had to set a standard time for a global closing for information to facilitate the business reviews.

Establishing closing dates for real-time information sounds like going back to the future. Even though technology can now serve up real time information on a PDA while we are on a transatlantic flight, we may need to rethink the idea of “right-time” information. In different parts of the enterprise, right-time information means different things. In a plant we want bacteria cultures, or the systemic indicators of bacteria problems, available as close to the real production time as possible. In sales, we need to know the financial impact of a deal before we set it to ink, but we may not need to know the profitability of each customer on an hourly basis.

In the old days, IT may not have given us the right information, but we did have time to analyze the business, make plans to improve and make new projections for the future. The challenge we have in the real-time world will be to discern the significant points of information that will make a difference from the trivial points that will besiege us. Keeping a perspective on having information at the “right time” will help.