In organizations, just as in organisms, responding suitably to critical threats can be a matter of life and death.
The zebra that fails to detect the stalking lion becomes that lion's dinner. Yet a zebra continually fleeing imagined threats would be just as vulnerable, risking death by exhaustion or a blunder into hostile territory in which it simply could not survive.
Matters are not so different on the corporate savannah. Events - many of them impossible to anticipate - can threaten from both inside and outside the organization. Competitors, governments, news organizations and markets can create both opportunities and threats.
When the grasslands of the marketplace are constantly shifting, organizations will only prosper if they can react - fast - to both internal and external events. That is why sense and respond (S&R) systems will inevitably - and probably in just a few short years - become commonplace, according to Dr K Mani Chandy, professor of Computer Science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). These systems, as their name suggests, sense, and then respond to opportunities and threats, then expand an enterprise's capacity to react.
"Animals that respond to too many false positives die," Chandy says. "A false positive is an unreal opportunity or threat, so responding to false positives wastes energy. An animal dies if it spends more calories hunting than it gets by eating.
"The stork gets streams of information from its senses: eyes, ears and touch. Much of the time it stands around doing nothing. Yet for perhaps five minutes in every hour, responding to a rare event - threat, opportunity or other critical situation - may be a matter of life and death," Chandy says.
"So for the remaining 55 minutes the basic functions - breathing, heart beating and the flowing of digestive juices - continue while the central nervous system filters out the other data streams, telling the stork that no critical event has occurred. When an opportunity appears, such as a meal in the form of a frog, the central nervous system alerts the mechanism, and this alert is crucial."
As it is with creatures, so it is with corporations. Think of evolution as largely being about honing each organism's ability to tell the difference between real and imagined threats and opportunities. Now organizations need to take a leaf out of these organisms' books to survive, Chandy says, by replicating those sense and respond capabilities. The good news is that your company is almost certainly event driven ("If it weren't it would be dead," Chandy says). Now it is time to prepare the ground for the time when you will want to sharpen that ability to respond rapidly to change.
"All enterprises have to respond to events to succeed," Chandy says. "We must recognize the IT organization in general, and you in particular, aren't going to make your enterprise an event-driven enterprise - it already is. The question for us in IT is whether we can help make our enterprises more agile."
Out of Your Control
The not so great news is that when it comes to monitoring your external environment, essential data is almost never in your control. Neither competitors nor collaborators structure data in schemas to suit your enterprise. They do not deliver data to your schedule either. That means errors will inevitably creep in. Also, data painstakingly gathered from your environment may be imprecise (as in natural-language text), wrong or delayed. Worse, systems can fail to detect genuine threats or opportunities, or raise false alarms about non-existent threats and opportunities.
That is where S&R comes in, Chandy says. Caltech's Infospheres Group defines such systems as "systems that detect critical conditions in an extended distributed environment and respond proactively".
S&R systems can embrace the reality of corporate data limitations by highlighting asynchrony and recognizing imprecision. They expand the human ability to respond to threats and opportunities. They monitor events both outside and inside an organization and create the changing big picture by integrating information from multiple sources about events. They identify new opportunities and threats as the big picture changes, and respond by invoking applications and sending alerts to devices.
S&R systems rely on individuals and software applications to define the conditions that will produce alerts. Such conditions may be rare, or based on sensitive information.
"The system monitors data sources within collaborating institutions and from non-collaborating (and potentially hostile) agencies. Data from multiple sources is normalized to a common vocabulary and integrated or 'fused'. The system detects when any of the specified conditions begin to hold. When a condition holds, alerts are sent securely to specified destinations authorized to receive the information," Chandy explains.
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