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Author's profile photo Klaus-Christoph Müller

Enter the next level: Reality in Real-time

May I ask you, what are you doing the whole day long? Don´t worry, I am not interested in the details, but my good guess is that most of you are, regardless of your actual position and what may be printed on your business card, to some degree acting as a manager today:

You have to plan and organize your job, you receive and give feedback and you have to react to it and try to make ends meet wherever possible. And this does not end at the borders of the job as bringing together family and business life is a special challenge for many of us these days. So step back for a moment and think about what you are doing day in day out. The usual tasks e.g. in managing projects can be described as Planning, Execution and Controlling from a higher aggregation level. Sounds fairly reasonable?

Yes, and of course it should be done in the right sequence, e.g. making up your mind before you start and having a look on the results afterwards. And you can do this cycle forever and ever:  Based on results and rising experience, the next planning will be much better than before. Only if the results were not as good as expected, simply your planning was not good enough. As example, PMI methodology is also following that basic phased pattern, in addition putting however great emphasis on the importance of communication. So planning is king, don´t forget to talk about it and everything is fine. Simply and straightforward, brilliant theory, bullet proof…

But in practice?

What about all these ever changing conditions where you have to react always and ASAP? Of course early alert systems are a good idea, but they do not cure the basic problem that you have to do corrective action and forget about your well defined phase plans here. And if you have a closer look, it is even less than that: You can´t even separate the tasks that clearly when you ask yourself at the end of a day what you have done. And by the way, in the heat of the moment you should better not ask a manager under pressure, whether he is now rather in a controlling mode or already starting planning again…

So let´s face reality, management could in practice not be divided in clearly separated tasks which are following phase by phase on each other. And management process is only circular in terms of that you sometimes have to start all over again all of a sudden and that usually everything happens at the same time!

Seems like a no-brainer?

Yes! I can really not claim any credits for this finding at all. The empiric research of Henry Mintzberg in the late sixties showed clearly that even back then the activities of managers could not be aligned with that circular management theory and divided by clear phase. And hence I learned it back at university (also already some years ago….) that daily work of a manager is characterized by open cycles, a fragmented work day, and lots of ambiguity.

All fair, but what´s my point is that although these facts are known since quite a long time, they are in general very poorly reflected in IT systems!

What are the two main reasons for this?

Up to now, technology and systems simply were not ready for this! Since the beginning of the computer age, capacity in storage and memory was scarce or at least expensive and hence basically never available in desired quantity. Remember Moore´s Law, IT price-performance rate is doubling every 18 months and this rule has proven constant over quite a number of years already. Price of sizing of course still matters, but it is no longer the critical factor or even the bottleneck that it used to be. Back in the old days however, the computing power was sometimes to be split between different systems and this limitation was also the reason for the separation between Online Transactional Processing (OLTP) and Online Analytical Processing (OLAP). At the center of OLAP are complex multidimensional and multi relational data analyses with high data volumes, supporting controlling and planning processes. Being not as time critical however as e.g. the business transaction in front of a customer, it was hence a logical step to separate it from daily business which was done in real-time like e.g. with ERP systems. So the aggregated data is collected separately in Data Warehouses with a delay due to batch upload. These are not in direct touch with operational systems and are also technically strictly separated by building up multidimensional info cubes rather than the transactional row based structures used in OLTP.

The second reason in my opinion is the approach of software design in general and ERP Systems in particular to cover as many different use cases as possible. This ends up in an enormous wealth of data and functions. In an attempt to bring structure to things, for developers and solution architects it was a quite logical step to do this also by different user roles. This split into managerial, transactional and analytical roles was also to some degree due for performance reasons taken to different systems as well, but the main focus was to use different roles in order to base the use cases on this. Of course this separation by roles is not a bad idea at all, sometimes even being a direct translation from the business world. However it leads to a problem, as developers were actually not thinking from the user in the first place. They came rather from the other end of the scope and end up to cluster that functionality in specific roles afterwards and not thinking from the requirements of the particular user in the first place. As a result, an average ERP user sees quite a lot of information and interaction points on his screen which he will probably never use, require or even understand. At the same time, so much space on the user interface is wasted for the not necessary information while others, important to the user, can only accessed by entering a different transaction with a different screen.

It was getting better with the invention of portals, combining the access to relevant transactions. But the basic idea that every transaction is reflecting a specific role is still alive. In the times of mobile apps, self-explaining and specific as it can get, this makes the classical look somewhat outdated. And they are also not flexible enough, especially given the requirement of doing everything in real-time on the spot and distinctions between roles are vanishing more and more these days.

So let us call it a day regarding the challenges for the user. But what can be done? How easily can a user solve his management tasks with current IT systems? Will this situation go on forever?

The good news is: Separating OLAP from OLTP is a work-around for too-slow processors that we no longer need. SAP has started the invention of HANA two years ago, which is, together with mobile and cloud solutions, the basis for a management in real-time deserving this classification for the first time in computer industry.

What Is HANA? Starting as an analytics platform, HANA has grown in the meantime to a flexible deployment environment for managing OLTP, analytical and big data usage types, in-memory and on-disk, on-premise and in the Cloud in one system. And these options are not separated like before, HANA supports advanced applications that can mix OLTP, analytics, and big data in real-time

In times where everything can be recorded, data volume is growing extremely. HANA allows for an adequate acceleration for big data and fast movement of data to match this. It is incredible in terms speed, for instance I saw an operative CRM system which was migrated to HANA database delivering answering times which were up to a hundred times faster. But that is not the main feature for me: The new infrastructure changes software architecture, blurring the boundaries between systems and transactional and analytical applications and allowing for a complete new user experience in true real-time. And this is supporting the needs of today´s business life. Remember that we are all managers today?

What is the bottom line?

Globalization offers new business opportunities. Also small and midsize companies have become international players in recent years. But in order to stay or become successful in this environment, you have to be fast and be cost effective. You have to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and immediate access to information has become a critical success factor – absolutely vital to making the right decisions at the right time, to providing excellent customer service, and to making timely cost-reduction measures.

Things are happening at the same time, and IT systems have to reflect this by being true real-time systems. Firstly, this means to get rid of the boundaries between systems as well as of the distinctions of different application types. Secondly, make business processes and transactions accessible to the user as simply and effectively as possible. So if you tear down the boundaries in the system landscape, you mustn´t keep them up in user transactions! Radically rethink what really makes sense for this particular user, offer as much flexibility as possible and keep everything away from the user what he doesn´t need and what hinders him in is business tasks.

It is about reducing complexity!

And by the way, that is exactly where it comes back to management theory: Today, the systems theory is used as a framework. In a complex world it is about to manage complexity, so you have to reduce it in order to concentrate on the important things. So reduction of complexity is the most important challenge of a manager, and systems should help him in doing so and not adding to it!

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