Real time reality

The rhetoric around the “real-time enterprise” continues to rise, but perhaps for a very good reason. It’s a golden opportunity for IT to once again show its true power. Is there a company anywhere that doesn’t want an instant 360-degree view of its customers? Is there a business left standing that isn’t leveraging IT right now to enhance the bottom line and whomp competitors?

Well, OK then.

So where’s that powerful IT opportunity? It’s in making the real-time enterprise work, despite all the legacy code and human obstacles in the way. It’s a given that the always-on infrastructure requires always-on business processes. Making that happen is very hard stuff that only IT can accomplish. It’s a real-time tangle of integration issues, infrastructure upgrade challenges and contentious internal politics.

What’s surprising and inspiring is that the real-time enterprise happens at all, and it does, in many remarkable ways.

I saw it myself, just last week, at a CIO summit sponsored by PeopleSoft Inc. An impressive lineup of corporate users took to the conference stage to talk about their progress and ongoing struggles in becoming real-time enterprises. These CIOs, from companies such as Corning, Verizon Wireless, Thomson Financial, Bausch & Lomb, Credit Suisse and Duke Energy, talked about real time not in technical or computational terms, but in stark business language.

To Duke Energy, a US$59 billion utility company, real time is about integrating the company’s massive application infrastructure to support business processes that speed delivery of information to executives. “Real time is a mind-set that requires a cultural change,” said CIO Stan Land.

To global optical supplier Bausch & Lomb, real time is about delivering “actionable information” to customers as diverse as Wal-Mart and a private practice of ophthalmologists. “When our new CEO came in, he said we had to lower administrative costs, be more competitive and use IT to do it,” explained CIO Marie Smith. That meant developing supply chain and CRM expertise over multiple customer channels and geographies.

To Corning, real time is about moving from a transaction-driven organization to an “information-driven enterprise,” said CIO Rick Beers. “People making decisions that’s where the transformation occurs.” The few IT projects getting funded at Corning these days are all related to enterprise systems and supply chain, he added.

In our Business section last week, marketing guru Regis McKenna wrote that IT is “evolving as the nerve center of customer information and satisfaction.” A company’s ability to keep the customer “dialogue” ongoing and engaging, he suggests, has largely become the responsibility of IT.

We also wrote last week about the real-time drivers behind Huntington Bancshares’ upcoming redesigned Web site. The bank holding company is wrapping up a complex yearlong project to give online customers access to a host of real-time services that CIO Joe Gottron thinks will double the percentage of online customers.

Today, real time promises exceptional returns for forward-thinking companies that forge a bond between IT and business growth. Inevitably, real time will simply be the way everyone does business.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson