Faster is better, but it may also be more dangerous

Last month, I talked about the potential benefits of a business technology strategy the GartnerGroup calls "zero latency." Essentially it means information entered by hundreds or thousands of sources is available within a company almost immediately to everyone who needs it. In a service industry such as trucking, this concept can be especially valuable since the sooner people get information, the sooner they can react to minimize a service problem or maximize equipment utilization.

As the growth of supply-chain logistics increases pressure on fleets to provide reliable, timely service, I pointed out that zero latency can offer major competitive advantages for both private and for-hire carriers. While those advantages are attractive, especially in today's business environment, you should also be aware that zero latency brings with it sizeable risks as well.

The first and most obvious risk is that it makes your fleet more vulnerable to catastrophic failure if the computer network you build to exchange information should collapse. If you capture new business based on time-sensitive service, imagine how those customers will react if you drop the ball because of "computer problems."

While nothing based on such complex technology can ever be 100% reliable, you can limit your exposure to serious network problems. The best insurance against such a failure is to build the most reliable, most secure network possible. If your goal is to share information throughout your organization, you can't cut corners when it comes to network design, hardware, or, most importantly, support.

Speeding up the flow of information not only improves service, but it also makes your performance more visible to customers. That's great when things are going right and you're providing service levels no one else can match. However, that's a two-edged sword since it means that errors or delays that now go unnoticed will also be much more visible because they'll be more widely reported. In other words, you better be ready to live with improved accountability.

And that brings up a suite of interconnected, but subtle, management issues that can't be ignored if you expect to reap the rewards of this new business strategy.

Start with a candid self-assessment. Shielded by assistants and delegated responsibilities, many executives have managed to avoid direct contact with today's new electronic business tools. For zero latency to work, everyone in the organization has to become comfortable with browsers, e-mail, and the other computer-based tools it requires. That comfort level is especially important for top management. A major strength of zero latency is that it allows them to make strategic business decisions based on front-line information, but only if they can access that information with the same speed as it's delivered.

As with any significant change, you can also expect to encounter resistance from some of those on the front line. Legacy attitudes and expectations can be a major impediment if you attempt to replace the old way of doing things with a poorly understood substitute. In order to avoid that threatened-employee syndrome, you have to make sure everyone understands the increased power and importance of their new roles as information gatherers and users.

Improved communications between the various operations within your fleet or business have to foster closer cooperation if you're going to get the benefits promised. That means you'll also have to defuse any turf wars or "friendly competition" that may have developed over time between departments or locations. In a sense, zero latency gets everyone reading from the same page. But you still have to make sure they're singing in harmony.

Finally, the most ironic problem raised by zero latency is that this time-saving technology will, for all the reasons outlined, actually increase demands on your time as a manager, at least in the early stages.

As serious as these potential risks and problems may be, though, the promise of nearly instantaneous access to all the crucial information your fleet needs still seems to be one use of technology that's too powerful to ignore. At least if you plan on remaining competitive.