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Smart Advice: Real-Time Analysis Lets Companies React Fast

Monitoring business activity gives timely picture of happenings.

Now is definitely the time for midsize manufacturing, distribution, and service companies to start a deliberate, phased implementation of business-activity monitoring. Be careful to stay with the proven components of this technology, though, since it's evolving rapidly.

With business-activity monitoring, users get real-time and historical visibility and analysis of strategic processes and data. The bird's-eye view lets managers monitor what they're responsible for and react accordingly.

Here's an example of a dashboard designed for one senior oil-refinery executive, which included:

  • A hot list of key performance indicators, refreshed every 15 minutes;
  • A running line graph of planned versus actual refinery production for the past 24 hours;
  • A table showing actual versus forecasted product prices and inventories;
  • An iconic display of refinery readings (replicated from the refinery control room);
  • A list of outstanding alerts and their resolution status;
  • A graph of crude-oil spot-market prices (live feed from the New York Mercantile Exchange); and
  • A scroll of headlines from Petroleum Company News, an industry news service.

These elements came from different data sources, refreshed independently, and supported drill-down.

Monitoring activities typically require a portal, a message-based application-integration facility to collect events, workflow and rules engines that let non-IT personnel define the steps in a process, and an alerts manager that disseminates alerts when an anomaly is spotted and follows up on correction. Increasingly, alerts managers include workflow and rules-definition capability.

Since business-activity monitoring displays go on executive desks, we recommend leaving the advanced development to large companies and installing the proven elements of business-activity monitoring technology. Some steps your company should consider taking to make this work:

We would expect that you've already installed portal technology and message-based application integration technology. If you haven't, you should move expeditiously.

Build a portal "gadget" for displaying key performance indicators numerically. You won't need to refresh key performance indicators in real time--15-minute, even one-hour refresh cycles are more common.

Build one or more gadgets for displaying color graphs of the most critical key performance indicators. Don't underestimate the value of "eye candy" to user acceptance.

Also build gadgets for the E-mail in-box, such as an external news feed and for displaying a publicly available stock-quote function. (This has nothing to do with your company's business; it's about user acceptance.)

Install an alerts manager that has some integrated rules capability, and train midlevel business managers to write the rules. Initially, we suggest a full-time expediter to follow up on the alerts.

Wes Melling is an expert at The Advisory Council, a technology advisory services firm. CMP's InformationWeek and Optimize magazines have a strategic partnership with TAC, sharing resources, content, and expertise to provide a range of services for business-technology professionals. The Advisory Council can be reached at For more SmartAdvice columns, check out

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