2021: The Year Real Time Gets Real

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One of the most momentous movements reshaping the data technology space in recent years is the push to real-time capabilities. The ability of systems to read and react to situations as they happen is the most compelling competitive advantage of the digital era. While many organizations provide some snippets of this through interactive chatbots on websites, for example, the potential of real-time capabilities has only begun to be tapped—and we’re still on a learning curve.

As the COVID-19 crisis struck Europe and North America last year, many companies were caught flat-footed within their supply chains. One lesson learned from the pandemic is that purchasing intentions can change overnight, and many supply chain systems were not ready for rapid shifts in purchasing patterns. Even the most intelligent companies with sophisticated analytics may not be able to keep up without real-time data and consistent human engagement. In an analysis in MIT Technology Review, Will Douglas Heaven pointed out that AI got just as befuddled by the sudden shifts as human planners. “Machine-learning models are designed to respond to changes. But most are also fragile; they perform badly when input data differs too much from the data they were trained on. It is a mistake to assume you can set up an AI system and walk away.”

The crisis also exposed vulnerabilities in key sectors that require greater real-time capabilities—with retail being a leading example. “Retail has been focused on removing friction from shopping experiences for the past decade so that consumers can move easily from store to online and get the products they want in a timely and convenient way,” said Melanie Nuce, senior vice president of corporate development for GS1 US. “This need has only grown as COVID-19 and the global pandemic have caused consumer behavior to seismically shift—away from physical browsing and in-store shopping to reliance on ecommerce search and fulfillment.”

The bottom line is that technology and processes that leverage real-time capabilities are still works in progress. At the heart of this trend is the way data is generated, processed, and delivered. A truly real-time enterprise “is only possible through technology that supports obtaining real-time information,” said Vikram Ahmed, director of enterprise information systems at Stetson University. “Using such technology allows an organization to progress from a reactive state to a proactive state and subsequently to interactive and hyperactive states. It can supply valuable insights on how improvements in processes, workflows, and transformations can be achieved.”

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