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So how would someone get started on the real-time road? Look at areas that are hard to do well if people are involved. Typically, they will have complex sets of business rules, large volumes of data that change values frequently, and high levels of requirements for correct decisions made quickly and unpredictably.
Look for the domain experts, the people who know how things really work, and start to capture what they know; they will often be the people who do the work, not the people who manage it. Their knowledge will be incomplete but should let you build good initial rule sets. Then look at where the closed-loop controls will have to be (right now they will often be people) and what smoothing functions will be required (probably more people). Build a model of the automated version of the process and run real data through it, working on eliminating errors and improving exception handling until the result is reliable enough to put into production.
The models are really important, not only as a design and debugging aid, but also as control mechanisms to detect when improvements are needed. By comparing results from the real system against predicted results from the model, you can see what, where and when you need to adapt.
Some major problems remain. There is a lack of available skills to build these levels of automation, even in the arena of embedded systems, and I don't see too many business systems courses that are currently trying to teach these design approaches. The level of change management required for reconfiguring people and processes to work this way is high and simply can't be ignored. "People are not peripherals," as one of my colleagues likes to remind me, and they don't ordinarily like being monitored as closely as the new systems may require.
It won't be an easy evolution to dynamic sense and respond. There's no doubt in my mind that it's going to happen, however, and it will probably start sooner and happen faster than we think. But there will very likely be some spectacular foul-ups along the way.
John Parkinson is chief technologist for the Americas at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.