Instant Is Not Real-time

Facebook, Inc.
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Should Enterprise software be like Facebook? That’s a question Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff recently raised. While reading Dennis Howlett’s analysis, Dennis makes a very simple but easy-to-overlook point about the difference between instant media and real-time media. It’s an important point, one I believe gets lost in the noise and hype about social media.


One of my main focuses is health care adoption and employment of software for improving collaboration and communication among patients and doctors and nurses. It’s important, therefore, to understand the property differences between media and the different contexts, conditions and processes needed for successful deployment. What works for consumers (Facebook) doesn’t necessarily work for business.

One of the properties of media like Twitter and Facebook has to do with time. Twitter and Facebook statuses are instant (at least when there are not server errors). Instant is exactly that: immediate, without regard to relevance. Real-time, however, has to do with relevance. In an enterprise, what matters are information flows – and without context and relevance, information is just data.

Real-time is more than just anytime (which is what instant is) – I need the right information delivered at the right time within the right context throughout the right process.

This distinction between instant and real-time is critical because any software developed must take into account the purposes and needs and contexts in order to ensure proper user experience and appropriate results.

So no: I don’t believe Enterprise software should be designed like Facebook. It follows then, that any software designed for patients and hospitals and doctors and nurses must not confuse themselves with consumer applications.


Therefore, any healthcare enterprise analogues of media like Twitter, must take into account the difference between instant and real-time. The applications must take into account the sociological and informational needs of clinical processes. Otherwise, disaster is certainly built-in.

Software lock-in is a huge problem in technology. I fear that philosophical lock-in of social media philosophy may be one our time’s greatest threats. (As an illustration of what I mean, the Privacy Is Dead mantra is, I fear, just one self-fulfilling instance of social media fallacy – it’s one of the most dangerous myths propounded and accepted by superficial thinking these days – it’s a dangerous mind-virus.)

We need a clear language when discussing technology – especially media technologies. Confusing instant with real-time is sloppy thinking. In a health care context, it’s downright dangerous.

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  1. Thanks Phil. I see your point and agree that it would be a challenge. I think perhaps that cost and productivity analysis would warrant such an engineering and technology investment.

    The fact that the numbers of tests that are performed and the time that it requires to process (run the tests, report, interpret, communicate the tests among the appropriate staff etc) could justify the efforts to have such technology implemented.

    I concur that the health and safety benefits would be enormous. This has me thinking in a different way now. I also see that the functionality and the way that different personnel would use it would need to be developed. I can envision this system having interdisciplinary communication that would stream line processes.

    Thanks for the clarification and for something to think about.

  2. Hi Drew,

    Sure – great question.

    Let’s us Twitter (or an Enterprise analogue) as an example. The raw instant streaming of events on a clinical micro-sharing platform wouldn’t be nearly as useful as one that more intelligently managed the flow and timing of information. In fact, it could just create too much noise where important information gets lost. I may not want “tweets” on every piece of information (labs, doc orders, etc.) but I would want the critical ones. The ability to filter is key – so is the ability to deliver relevant data and information at the right time.

    Technologically, the engineering involving in creating what I would call true Real-time software (versus Instant) would be intensive and challenging.

    I think that Twitteresque applications could be enormously appealing in a clinical setting, but their use would require a different mode of use than a consumer application (as they way Twitter works int the public setting).

    Also, there are probably different uses of real-time software depending on the context: nurses may have different application needs than say administrators. And yet, having enterprise software that “ties” it all together could improve patient care and safety.

    Hope that helps.


  3. Phil, I am intrigued by your post. I’m trying to contextually apply your logic to clinical scanarios and I am uncertain that I follow. Can you give me a clinical example as to how this is dangerous? I’m not saying I disagree, I’m just looking for clarification.

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