Toward Business in Real-Time

In 2002 I attended the PeopleSoft on Tour conference in Toronto. This was before the merger with JD Edwards and the subsequent acquisition by Oracle. The software industry was still trying to recover from its recent dot-com bubble. I had gone to the conference with the naive hope of learning more about PeopleSoft’s products and possibly landing a job working with them.

Dashed hopes notwithstanding, I was inspired by the keynote address presented by the then CEO of PeopleSoft Craig Conway. The theme of his address was “The Real-Time Enterprise” and it still reverberates today. Conway recapped the history of business reporting.

Annual reports came first, prepared for the traditional annual meeting and often synched with and necessitated by accounting’s annual tax reporting cycle. In fact, most of the content for the annual reports came straight from the accounting department. Annual reports for an enterprise were and still are also used for shareholder and board meetings. Although nice if the news from the previous year was good, annual reports are not very helpful in correcting problems before they get worse when the news is bad. It’s hard to imagine today, but at one time these reports had to be compiled manually.

As computerization made reporting faster and easier, reports for the quarterly board meeting became the norm. It soon followed logically that monthly reports would be even more useful. Monthly reports allowed managers to make mid-stream adjustments based on the quarterly board meetings to help avoid having to report something bad at the end of the year. Reporting had moved from the boardroom to the manager’s office.

Reporting cycle times have hovered around 24 hours or less for decades now. Most companies have data up to midnight of the previous day available for reporting and planning purposes. Conway’s vision of a “Real-Time Enterprise” involved reducing the time of reporting cycle times to zero, showing the actual current state of the company.

Many companies — even those not using PeopleSoft/Oracle products — now have “dashboards” that display KPI’s on one convenient screen, mimicking manufacturing process control systems, although unlike those manufacturing control systems, most dashboards are not yet truly real-time. Users now have information at their fingertips that allows them to steer companies with more control than ever before. In just over ten years’ time, the vision of the real-time enterprise has almost become reality.