Nearly every organization is drowning in data. Information sources abound - email, Internet search, business transaction data, the latest customer database updates and weekly reports. Few organizations would deny the importance of this onslaught of data because information can unlock competitive advances, operational efficiencies and business opportunities. However, the ongoing challenge is to filter the important information from the sea of data flowing through the nets.

In the Beginning, There was BAM

Let's take a step back to where we originally thought we were going with technologies such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and data warehouses. Clearly, the intent was a good one - know your customer, react to problems faster through better business intelligence and research situations before making significant business decisions. Emerging from this quagmire was the concept of business activity monitoring (BAM), i.e., managing a process such as a customer interaction and monitoring the flow of that process to ensure it stays on track. BAM monitors business processes in real time in an effort to support operational improvements. BAM was the first step in a journey that has since evolved into specialist technologies that help manage the organization operationally and strategically. One of those technologies is business event monitoring (BEM). Where BAM typically concerns itself with managing a single business process, BEM is generally concerned with monitoring all current processes to provide meaningful alerts and analytics to users. Think of BEM as real-time data mining.

At the highest level, BEM is a means of filtering the tsunami of information about business events that pours through the company every day by recognizing those data points that are most important to particular persons or workgroups. At its lowest level, BEM is a monitoring tool that keeps track of multiple events and compares those event parameters and outcomes against a set of business rules, taking an action if the event falls within the predefined criteria.

BEM stands at the crossroads of a number of business and cultural changes that are happening because of technology advances and the consequential information overload. This overload of data in business and personal lives means that important data is often overshadowed by the urgent or the most visible. For example, in any given work day, a knowledge worker might be bombarded by instant messages, mobile telephone calls, voicemails to their business telephone number, emails and paper-based reports left in their inbox. Prioritizing the importance of the incoming data and discerning what is business-critical - especially in the instances where one action triggers others and therefore precious time and resources stand still until the appropriate action takes place - become a full-time job in and of itself.

Also contributing to information overload are the elements of personalization and accessibility. Pervasive throughout society is the ability to personalize the receipt of information - from the ringtone on your mobile phone to your daily news alerts. People demand that information is tailored to their individual needs. Additionally, the range of options for data delivery is enormous, creating the expectation of immediate gratification: people demand that they can know what they want to know immediately and be able to react to it in real time. In reality, BAM and BEM are already part of your daily life, whether you realize it or not.

The Right Ingredients for BEM Success

The most important part of a BEM system is access to the meaningful flow of transaction and historical data that will allow decisions to be made. Fortunately, this transaction flow is usually already available from current systems, such as ERP, CRM and data warehouses that contain the daily grist that run a modern business. The next most important component of BEM is a set of rules or tolerances against which the flow of data can be compared and adjudicated. Defining and refining these business rules can often be the most difficult part of applying BEM to your business. Third, there must be an engine that does the adjudication, an engine that continuously reviews every transaction or group of transactions against the business rule filters to find the transactions that are interesting. Finally, there must be an output mechanism, a way of delivering the information to the user in an actionable way.

Defining and building the business rules that allow the engine to pull needles from the haystack of data is the critical process in building the system. These business rules are often located in the heads of experienced employees or known only to business analysts and financial managers. BEM provides a way of delivering those insights to the entire business.

The power of BEM is realized when it is used to cross-reference disparate data sets looking for patterns. For example, cross-referencing internal historical shipments and forward orders data against weather information available on the Internet may provide insights to internal data that is not immediately obvious. Forward order information from a particular location may be strong and cross-referencing with the weather forecast may provide the reasons for that order pattern.

Let's examine BEM in the context of a real-life business example. Every business process has specific rules that are combined with data that emanates from a variety of sources. When a sales order is placed, a chain of set events occurs that has been defined by the business rules. That chain might include a historical check against orders that the customer has placed before to confirm their current shipping address, validation of their credit and payment history, a check with the warehouse on inventory availability and, eventually, even a transaction with the payroll department to pay a commission to the sales representative. All of these activities constitute business activities; however, not every event is meaningful to everyone in this process. The real recipe for BEM success is not to send every single activity to everyone - give the sales representatives exactly what they need, noting that exception data is most important and actionable. In this instance, if the inventory to fulfill the order does not exist in the warehouse, the sales representative needs instant notification of that event in order to apprise the customer accordingly and perhaps support the selection of another product before the customer buys from the competition.

Can You Afford not to Comply?

Another critical driver for BEM is today's compliance-intensive culture. Organizations are held responsible for their actions or inactions, and not knowing something (especially when the data was available in a system but not properly mined) isn't a viable excuse. To protect the business - as well as those individuals holding accountability - BEM is instrumental in uncovering valuable information, thus eliminating the possibility that something critical hasn't been properly communicated. To further support proper compliance, the personalization of business rules, i.e., role-based data and business event dashboards, will present the most meaningful information in a manner that will drive user adoption, whether that be via email, voicemail or over the Web.

You might be asking yourself how costly it is to implement BEM in your organization. Rest assured that most organizations already have the backbone in place for BEM. They've created systems and repositories that ensure a continuous flow of information, e.g., transactions, order and customer contacts. BEM monitors and controls this flow to make sure only the exceptions are being communicated in real time. Dealing with and acting upon exceptions vastly improves workforce productivity and, when properly defined, ensures visibility into those critical situations that necessitate action from the corresponding resources.

Easing BEM into the Enterprise

If the nirvana of BEM still sounds challenging to implement, consider it this way. It's the combination of the right ingredients to ensure the right event-monitoring results. Leveraging existing investments, such as your data warehouse and CRM system, with intelligent agents, workflow processes and data mining gives you the ability to predict what is most important to your organization. By analyzing an event's impact on your business, you can determine which exceptions to what events are most important to monitor and start from there. Remember that effective BEM can be easily staged in one business unit or function before being implemented enterprise-wide. Proof of concept showing the operational gains from your initial implementation of BEM will vastly increase management's eagerness to invest further. BEM will not only help you sort through the daily mountains of data gathered across disparate systems, it will help your organization increase agility, perform more efficiently and stave off potential catastrophes.

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