One of the hallmarks of the somewhat depressing IT landscape of the last three years has been its overriding emphasis on cost-cutting, mending and making do, and other terms for living off the IT body fat accumulated in the boom Y2K/dot-com period.
But as the general economy recovers and business confidence returns, organisations will increasingly turn to technologies -- of a variety of stripes -- which can enable them to both further streamline their operations and improve efficiency, but also to massively speed up their rate of operations.
The idea is that in a world where customers can find out all about you on the Web, plus expect to buy off you or commercially interoperate with you online, your company needs to be as nimble as possible.
Isn't that the old e-commerce message? Not quite. "In a world where nightclubbers talk about 24x7, and more and more 'Indianisation' is going on of processes, we're really talking about the Now Economy, not the New Economy," says Mark Raskino, research director for IT management, Gartner Europe.
Indeed, Raskino's organisation has been talking about the real-time enterprise (RTE) since 2001, defining an RTE firm as one that competes by "aggressively reducing [the time of] its critical business processes". The lynchpin of RTE is when a company takes aggressive steps to extract as much time from core processes as possible -- between 30 percent and 90 percent is recommended, says Gartner -- and uses this to deliver customised products, fast.
Dell and Cisco, sure: probably Amazon, possibly eBay. But also think of non-digital giants like General Motors, which says it has slashed car-design cycles from 48 months to 22, or innovative low-cost airlines like JetBlue, based out of New York. What these RTE companies have in common is the ability to use Internet and communication technologies to re-mould their business processes: think of it as "if we had to start again, how would we do this?"
And don't be misled by the terminology. "It doesn't necessarily mean literally real-time in an electronics sense -- just being massively more efficient and operating at higher corporate 'clock speed'," says Raskino. "In the old days you made lots of stuff. Now you spend your time producing what your customers want," adds Spencer Marlow, solutions marketing manager for retail and CPG at Sterling Commerce.
There's obviously a lot of business issues here that may not be top of the technologist's agenda. What should be is awareness of the global aim of RTE-ness, and enthusiasm for implementing projects that can bring your organisation closer to it.
According to industry watchers, core RTE technologies include:
Yes, it's very early days, and we're all maybe a little weary about getting the message being pushed down our throats. But as companies start to open up applications using things like XML and SOAP, the foundations of extra-company processes and supply chains efficiently exchanging data become a step closer. But if that's a bridge too far for you, think about reviving your EAI (enterprise application integration) thinking: how can you achieve better cross-connection of your heavy-lifting business apps?
Business Process Management
Another trendy term, BPM is really all about techniques for isolating the metadata that helps define how intrinsic business processes work -- with the aim of then taking it apart, perhaps to redesign it, or hand off pieces if desired to third parties. "Things that zigzag across organisations like this are what make RTE come alive," says Gartner's Raskino. This also means that BPM languages, such as BPML and BPEL, will get more visible
Major vendors like SAP, Peoplesoft, Oracle, SSA Global and Geac will all be important in the move to RTE, as companies will look to their back-office systems as places to identify areas of improvement and speed up time to market. Note that there's no problem if an ERP process actually takes place as a batch, rather than in literal real-time; a lot of economic efficiency results from doing thinks in bulk at times that suits the company more than the supplier.
Again, there's a lot of neo-philosophical positioning going on, with things like HP's Adaptive Enterprise and IBM's On Demand; and clearly we're years off IT being supplied like gas or electricity or sold as a service, despite what we hear about Grid and Blade/Brick approaches. But clearly this is the way the industry wants to move, at least at the level of strategy of the IBMs and Microsofts. Even if self-healing and autonomic processes sound straight out of science fiction, we will get there. Anything that promotes flexibility and scaling up (or out) as needed will win hearts and minds in the RTE-shaped future
Be it storage virtualisation (at the fabric, server, or disk level) or any middleware that helps abstract physical kit from business use, virtualisation is a key RTE component. On the middleware front, message-oriented middleware is set for a huge revival -- because anything that can swiftly communicate at an event-based level will be of increasing interest for companies seeking to compress decision times
Collaboration and Information Sharing
It may seem obvious, but none of this heavy metal technology will be any more use than a chocolate teapot unless users can get a handle on all that information. Remember when we thought email would speed up decision making? Expect receptive ears if you talk about corporate instant messaging to help de-clog the emailed-up communication arteries, plus lots more business use of 2.5G level technologies (think about how useful an MMS of your dented wing mirror could be for, say, insurance claims processing)
That list may seem like the entire IT shop -- but the point is that the thrust of modern information technology, if it really is ever going to get out of recession, must be to offer business achievable benefits. Cutting time to market and achieving real-time business speeds has to be the major prize.