Eyes Everywhere

Business activity monitoring tools are emerging that watch and report on events as they unfold.

Every afternoon at 4:30, a screen pops up on the PC of Neil Montgomery, CEO of Davis Controls Ltd. in Oakville, Ontario. It tells him of the important events of the day, such as how many orders the company booked, how much was billed, the names of customers who have gone past 90 days without paying and the orders that have missed delivery promises.

His business activity monitoring (BAM) system also tells him about things that didn't happen. For example, Montgomery's BAM system sends him 15 daily e-mail alerts, one of which identifies any remote salespeople who haven't logged in that day to download the latest information from a corporate database about the customers in their territories.

"Sometimes those remote sales guys will just sit out there in never-never land, and as long as they think no one is watching, they'll march to their own drummer," he says.

But Montgomery watches through the eyes of Macola Enterprise Suite, an ERP package from Exact Software, a subsidiary of Exact Holding NV in Delft, Netherlands. Macola ES includes the Exact Event Manager, a BAM product that triggers alerts and reports on activity and nonactivity both inside and outside of the ERP system.

BAM, a term coined by Gartner Inc., refers to the automated monitoring of business-related activity affecting an enterprise. Although BAM applications are seldom truly real-time, they generally look at and report on activity in the current operational cycle—the current hour, day or week, for example—and are designed to spot problems early enough to head them off.

There is no precise definition of BAM products. They incorporate concepts from—and sometimes are built on—ERP, business intelligence (BI), business process management and enterprise application integration (EAI) software. Most vendors of those types of products claim to have BAM offerings.

And BAM isn't a new concept; credit card companies have had real-time fraud monitors for years, and manufacturing facilities have real-time error-detection software built into their assembly lines.

Most companies monitor their business activity, but it's often after the fact—too late to head off a problem such as a missed bid deadline or the loss of a major customer. "The conventional wisdom has been to just take transactional data and move it to the data warehouse and then to the BI system," says Mike Smith, a senior vice president at Ventana Research in Belmont, Calif. "But those systems aren't responsive."

Indeed, BAM applications generally don't take data from a data warehouse; they pluck it in real time from the applications where it originates—order entry, accounts receivable, customer relationship management and so on. Output takes a variety of forms, including dashboards, e-mails, pager alerts and conventional reports.

"What's new with BAM," Smith says, "is we've taken the subcomponents of technologies that have matured in the last three to four years and put them together to provide more relevant information in a much more responsive fashion." These components include EAI, event management, rules, workflow monitoring and alerting technology, he says.

"BAM tools seem to work," says Gartner analyst Bill Gassman. On the other hand, he says, most BAM applications today aren't very sophisticated. They tend to be narrowly focused—one could be designed to watch for a malfunction on an assembly line, for example. "But what if there are external factors, like a FedEx shipment of parts is late? How do you integrate that?" Gassman asks. Recognizing such concerns, vendors are starting to build BAM into their supply chain products, he says.

Montgomery says BAM enables him to manage his company more proactively. "Before, I'd have to wait until a customer called with a complaint or I'd have to wait until the month-end financial statements to really get a feel for how the business was doing."

Montgomery generally gives his employees free rein to use Exact Event Manager and to define alerts, which can be triggered by events in the company's front-end systems, such as CRM, and back-office systems, such as purchasing, inventory, order entry and accounting. "Anyone who needs to know something now has no excuse not to know that thing," he says.

Heads Up

The Albuquerque city government uses NoticeCast from Cognos Corp. in Burlington, Mass., to proactively push e-mail notices of important events—in near real time—to city employees, residents and vendors. NoticeCast sits outside the city's firewall on an extranet and monitors events by periodically querying Oracle Corp. tables populated by municipal systems. It alerts city managers to events and notifies outside parties of government actions. For example, it does the following:

  • Every morning, NoticeCast sends an e-mail to each vendor that was issued an electronic payment during the night, directing the vendor to a Web site on the extranet where it can get a remittance report.
  • Every evening, NoticeCast sends an e-mail to each Albuquerque resident for whom a water bill was produced. The e-mail contains all the pertinent billing information and directs the resident to a Web site where he may pay his bill online.
  • Once a day, the system sends e-mail to certain city employees, letting them know of all online payments made to the city during the past 24 hours.
  • Whenever a candidate files a contribution report, NoticeCast sends e-mail to city employees responsible for tracking campaign law compliance.

The e-mail alert system helps the city track events faster and more thoroughly than before, says Chris Framel, a systems analyst for the city. "And before NoticeCast, we didn't do [electronic] payments at all because it was so difficult."

Framel says the city may buy a license to use NoticeCast inside the firewall on its intranet, something he says is "quite expensive." It would be used to monitor financial and payroll systems. "For example, we could monitor overtime abusers and sick-leave abusers," he says.

Some BAM systems are pretty basic, simply letting a user know whether an event has occurred. Others apply user-supplied rules and Boolean logic and are more complex. At Davis Controls, for example, when a promised order-delivery date is missed, one e-mail alert is generated for the responsible salesperson, one goes to the customer with an apology, and one goes to an expediter. Different e-mails go to new customers, depending on the size of their initial orders.

Over the next few years, BAM systems will employ increasingly powerful logic, analysts say [see "What's Next for BAM"].

The vice president of operations at a Fortune 100 financial services firm uses the SeeRun Platform, a suite of products from SeeRun Corp. in San Francisco, to monitor cases in a complex workflow environment. The firm, which the executive asked not to be named, manages some 50,000 cases per year, and each can last a year and involve dozens of milestones. The firm has signed contracts with its clients guaranteeing performance against operational metrics related to these milestones. If a task is supposed to be completed within 24 hours but isn't, an alert is generated for the appropriate manager.

"Even more helpful is receiving live activity-tracking along the way—at six hours, 12 hours, 18 hours and so on," the vice president says. The system has improved performance and reduced expenses, and it even serves as a marketing tool that can prove performance to prospective clients, he says.

But the operations vice president issues this warning to would-be BAM users: "The biggest challenge is what to do with all the data. You can actually overengineer something like this. If you get too many stakeholders involved, everybody wants their own particular metric. Our experience has been to keep it focused and simple."

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Top Goals for Measuring and Monitoring

Respondents to a Ventana Research survey were asked to name their top three goals for monitoring their businesses.
Top Goals for Measuring and Monitoring
Source: Ventana Research, Belmont, Calif.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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