Talking technology – business intelligence

Real-time BI – turning data into intelligence that empowers individuals and businesses

Time is a relative concept so it follows that the term ‘real-time’ should mean different things to different people – and the area of business intelligence is no exception. In some scenarios, real-time business intelligence (BI) does what its name implies; data or events enter the corporate system at one point and are available as ‘intelligence’ elsewhere almost immediately. So a manufacturer with a textile plant in Idaho can tightly control production costs by monitoring the plant’s energy consumption, comparing it against live data from the utilities companies, then slowing down or even halting production if profit margins get too small.

All systems have some latency between an event occurring and a system’s ability to capture it and act appropriately. As a result, the term ‘real-time’ has become rather elastic and you will find it being used to describe systems that update and analyse data every few seconds, every few minutes, hourly, or even just a couple of times a day.

The significance of this is determined by each individual scenario. An air traffic controller in Mombassa and a taxi-cab dispatcher in Tokyo may both need access to real-time information, but the margins of error, and their consequences, are very different.

The timeliness of the data that is processed in a real-time BI scenario can also vary between applications, organisations, and even departments. In some scenarios, the input data may be very recent, in others, recent data may be combined with older data to provide context – because what people expect to get from real-time BI also varies widely.

It can provide individuals, departments or entire enterprises with the information needed to make immediate business decisions, provide the information required to make an informed choice about whether to act now or later, or provide direction on how best to act in the first place. As long as real-time BI makes the right information available to the right people, in the right format, and at the right time, then it is achieving its aim.

But the areas in which real-time BI can reap the greatest rewards are not always the same as those where more traditional BI has delivered the biggest benefits. They can just as easily be in the front as in the back office, and can occur at any level in the organisation.

For example, a finance director may need to receive an immediate warning, via e-mail or text message, if the price of electricity fluctuates beyond predetermined limits, or if rain adversely affects seasonal product sales, so that the impact on the bottom line can be minimised. But a call centre operator, dealing with customer queries on deliveries or repairs, may need access to information that is no more than a few minutes old, if the business is to avoid losing valuable customers.

Real-time BI is about turning data into the sort of intelligence that empowers individuals to respond to changing conditions as effectively and rapidly as possible, in the best interests of the entire business. 


"As long as real-time BI makes the right information available to the right people, in the right format, and at the right time, then it is achieving its aim"