Business leaders need timely information about the operations and profitability of the businesses they manage to help make informed decisions. But when information delivery is delayed, decision makers lose precious time to adjust and respond to changing market conditions, customer preferences, supplier issues or all three. When thinking about any business analytics solution, a critical question to ask is: how frequently can we (or should we) update the underlying data? Often, the first answer from the business stakeholders is “as frequently as possible.” The concept of “real time analytics,” with data being provided up-to-the minute, is usually quite attractive. But there may be some confusion about what this really means.
While the term real time analytics does refer to data which is frequently changing, it is not the same as simply refreshing data frequently. Traditional analytics packages which take advantage of data marts, data warehouses and data cubes are often collectively referred to as a Decision Support System (DSS). A DSS helps business analysts, management and ownership understand historical trends in their business, perform root cause analysis and enable strategic decisions. Whereas a DSS system aggregates and analyzes sales, costs and other transactions, a real time analytics system ingests and processes events. One can imagine a $25 million business recording 10,000 transactions a day. One can imagine that same business recording events on their website: login, searches, shopping cart adds, shopping card deletes, product image zoom events. If the business is 100% online, how many events would that be? The answer may astonish you.
Why Real Time Analytics?
DSS solutions answer questions such as “What was our net income last month?”, “What was our net income compared to the same month last year?” or “Which customers were most profitable last month?” Real time analytics answers questions such as “Is the customer experience positive right now?” or “How can we optimize this transaction right now?” In the retail industry, listening to social media channels to hear what customers are saying about their experience in your stores, can drive service level adjustments or pricing promotions. When that analysis is real-time, store managers can adjust that day for optimized profitability. Some examples:
- Social media sentiment analysis – addressing customer satisfaction concerns
- Eliminating business disruption costs with equipment maintenance analytics
- Promotion and marketing optimization with web and mobile analytics
- Product recommendations throughout the shopping experience, online or “brick and mortar”
- Improved health care services with real time patient health metrics from wearable technology
In today’s world, customers expect world class service. Implicit in that expectation is the assumption that companies with whom they do business “know them”, anticipate their needs and respond to them. That’s easy to say, but harder to execute. Companies who must meet that expectation need technology leaders to be aware of three concepts critical to making real time analytics a real thing.
The first is Internet of Things or IoT. The velocity and volume of data generated by mobile devices, social media, factory floor sensors, etc. is the basis for real time analytics. “Internet of Things” refers to devices or sensors which are connected to the internet, providing data about usage or simply their physical environment (where the device is powered on). Like social media and mobile devices, IoT sensors can generate enormous volumes of data very, very quickly – this is the “big data” phenomenon.
The second is Cloud Computing. The massive scale of IoT and big data can only be achieved with cloud scale data storage and cloud scale data processing. Unless your company’s name is Google, Amazon or Microsoft, you probably cannot keep up. So, to achieve real-time analytics, you must embrace cloud computing.
The third is Intelligent Systems. IBM’s “Watson” computer achieved a significant milestone by out-performing humans on Jeopardy. Since then, companies have been integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into large scale systems. AI in this sense is simply a mathematical model which calculates the probability that data represents something a human would recognize: a supplier disruption, a dissatisfied customer about to cancel their order, an equipment breakdown. Using real time data, machine learning models can recognize events which are about to occur. From there, they can automate a response, or raise an alert to the humans involved in the process. Intelligent systems help humans make nimble adjustments to improve the bottom line.
What technologies will my company need to make this happen?
From a technology perspective, a clear understanding of cloud computing is essential. When evaluating a cloud platform, CIO’s should look for breadth of capability and support for multiple frameworks. As a Microsoft Partner, BlumShapiro Consulting works with Microsoft Azure and its Cortana Intelligence platform. This gives our clients cloud scale, low cost and a wide variety of real time and big data processing options.
This diagram describes the Azure resources which comprise Cortana Intelligence. The most relevant resources for real time analytics are:
- Event Hubs ingest high velocity streaming data being sent by Event Providers (i.e. Sensors and Devices)
- Data Lake Store provide low cost cloud storage which no practical limits
- Stream Analytics perform in-flight processing of streaming data
- Machine Learning, or AzureML, supports the design, evaluation and integration of predictive models into the real-time pipeline
- Cognitive Services are out-of-the-box Artificial Intelligence services, addressing a broad range of common machine intelligence scenarios
- Power BI supports streaming datasets made visible in a dashboard context
Four Steps to Get Started with Real Time Analytics
Start with the Eye Candy – If you do not have a dashboard tool which supports real-time data streaming, consider solutions such as Power BI (link to our web page). Even if you are not ready to implement an IoT solution, Power BI makes any social media or customer marketing campaigns much more feasible. Power BI can be used to connect databases, data marts, data warehouses and data cubes, and is valuable as a dashboard and visualization tool for existing DSS systems. Without visualization, it will be very difficult to provide human insights and actions for any kind of data, slow or fast.
Get to the Cloud – Cloud storage costs and cloud processing scale are the only mechanisms by which real time analytics is economically feasible (for most companies). Learn how investing in technologies like Cloud Computing can really help move your business forward.
Embrace Machine Intelligence – To make intelligent systems a reality, you will need to understand machine learning technologies, if only at a high level. Historically, this has meant developing a team of data scientists, many of whom have PhD’s in Mathematics or Statistics, and open source tools like R or Python. Today, machine learning is much more accessible then it has ever been. AzureML helps to fast track both the evaluation and operationalization of predictive models.
Find the Real-Time Opportunity – As the technology leader in the organization, CIO’s will need to work closely with other business leaders to understand where real-time information can increase revenue, decrease costs or both. This may require imagination. Start with the question – what would we like to know faster? If we knew our customer was going to do this sooner, how would we respond? If we knew our equipment was going to fail sooner, how would we respond? If we knew there was an opportunity to sell more, how would we respond?
About Brian: Brian Berry leads the Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Analytics practice at BlumShapiro. He has over 15 years of experience with information technology (IT), software design and consulting. Brian specializes in identifying business intelligence (BI) and data management solutions for upper mid-market manufacturing, distribution and retail firms in New England. He focuses on technologies which drive value in analytics: data integration, self-service BI, cloud computing and predictive analytics.