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Real-time information: How much is too much?

Nov 17, 20033 mins
Cellular NetworksEnterprise ApplicationsMessaging Apps

Two weeks ago I talked about the effect of the ongoing sea change in telecom technologies and hinted at the dramatic business effect these technologies will have in coming years. I’m talking about things like instant messaging and wireless  that provide the ability to gather, in real time, detailed data about the front lines of business activities.

These technologies bring unprecedented power to business executives, who can have a better handle on their day-to-day businesses than ever before. But that power is the proverbial double-edged sword: It’s the power to be highly effective and responsive, or to make truly boneheaded mistakes.

A great look at the effect of communications technologies on human activities is the just-published book  Intelligence in War by John Keegan. The author’s main thesis is that the ability to know what’s happening on the front lines can change the outcome of a battle – but accurate knowledge is harder to obtain, and harder to react appropriately to, than it appears. Furthermore, he points out that there’s a danger that generals and admirals will use such knowledge to override decisions made in the field – decisions by individuals who often have greater context and insight into the nuances of the actual situation and are therefore better equipped to call the shots.

Keegan highlights the development of wireless technologies as a watershed mark in modern warfare. For the first time, he notes, strategists could connect in real time to soldiers in the field. The analogy to modern business activities is particularly close. In recent research into the deployment of Wi-Fi, my firm has found that wireless provides the greatest productivity boost to organizations in which business is conducted away from desks, computers and wired phones: hospitals, restaurants, retail sales and logistics firms.

Specifically, Wi-Fi provides measurable hard-dollar productivity increases in these cases by enabling the more effective delivery of the core product or service, whether patient care, margaritas, blue jeans or packages. Key to providing optimal service is using information to empower front-line workers to make local decisions.

However, there’s a delicate balance between empowering front-line workers and ensuring an optimal outcome for the initiative as a whole. History suggests this balance is hard to get right. With good information, office-bound strategists (whether business execs or commanding officers) have a much better global view of the situation. Yet ensuring that information is good – that is both accurate and relevant – is harder than it looks. That’s where computing technologies such as data classification, data quality management, and real-time databases give real-time communications technologies a boost.

There always will be the tendency, though, for those in command to falsely believe that real-time information equates to inherently superior decision-making. As Keegan points out in the section on Admiral Nelson’s pursuit of Napoleon’s forces in the Mediterranean in 1798, “The absence of intervention by the Admiralty. . . was a positive advantage. Nelson was not bothered by London or intermediate authorities and, though he made his own mistakes, was spared the misjudgements of others.”