Busting down the info silos

Some companies have discovered that the benefits of sharing data more widely are well worth the costs and effort.

More than a decade ago, General Mills developed a CRM system called International Contact Entry (ICE), which collects consumer contact data from phone calls, mail, email, and the Web and puts it all into a single Oracle database and a SAP BusinessObjects reporting system.

"We now have a single database for global consumer contact information that spans the various silos of division, plant or country," says Jeff Hagen, the food giant's director of consumer services. The business analytics group develops dashboards and reports to serve not only his group, but also the Quality and Regulatory Operations (QRO) group, whose job is to ensure product quality and safety.

This was only the start of Hagen's decade-long voice of the customer (VOC) crusade to provide different business groups with the customer intelligence they need. A few years ago, he convinced management of the value of giving sales and marketing access to customer intelligence, through ICE.

Here's one example of why breaking down the silos paid off: A product locator on General Mills' website allows customers to find out which stores in their ZIP code area carry, say, a particular Yoplait flavor or type of cereal. They can also enter which store they prefer to shop at.

Hagen's group compiles and analyzes such queries to determine which products consumers are hunting for the most, and which they are having trouble finding in any given region. Salespeople then use the reports to convince store buyers to purchase more of those products.

Another example is an early warning system that lets General Mills' QRO group know when customer complaints about a particular product begin to escalate, so they, as well as consumer services, can deal with the situation quickly.

A couple of years ago, it became clear that General Mills needed to extend its VOC platform to include social media. More and more business groups were signing up with social media data mining services, creating silos of valuable information that only they could access, Hagen says. "We wanted to provide a single pipe for all [social media] conversations for all our brands, not just for groups that could afford to do it themselves," and ultimately make that data sharable, he adds.

Meanwhile upper management, alarmed at well-publicized viral disasters that had befallen other firms, wanted Hagen's team to build a system that would "enable us to keep our finger on the pulse of social media," says James Bell, an IS staff consultant who works with Consumer Services and developed ICE.

Last summer, the company deployed the system, which, combined with ICE, "allows us to provide our brands' teams with a more complete picture of the desires, needs, complaints, praise and frustrations of our consumers," Hagen says. Still, the VOC initiative is still very much a work in progress, he admits.

Beware, though; this type of project isn't meant for those who are watching their pennies. Hagen says General Mill has invested in "the hundreds of millions" of dollars in these systems "over the years."

(Next: Silo-less living)

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