Self-service BI catches on

It's all about helping business users collaborate and make faster decisions with complex information

The Great Recession caught most of the used-car industry by surprise, says Chris Brady, CIO at Dealer Services Corp. A lot of dealers assumed the downturn would be short and mild, so they went on adding inventory at a fairly steady rate. As a result, many used-car inventory-financing firms didn't see the writing on the wall until the recession was already in full swing.

Dealer Services, in contrast, got a heads up early in the year from its newly deployed business intelligence (BI) platform, Information Builders' WebFocus, Brady says.

Dealer Services is far from alone. According to a recent Aberdeen Group report, 67% of "best in class" companies and 21% of all businesses have adopted some form of self-service BI.

Indeed, self-service BI looks to be the next big wave in business intelligence, industry experts agree. In a January 2010 report, Gartner, Inc. pointed to growing demand among business organizations for a "data discovery tool architecture" that not only provides end users with data and reports, but also enables them to navigate and visualize the data in a "surf and save" mode. This means that data views deemed valuable are stored for reuse or sharing.

Chris Brady
In addition to reducing the burden on IT and business analysts, self-service BI has increased the quality and consistency of the data and of decisions made with that data, says Chris Brady, CIO of Dealer Services.

These tools are being put to any number of uses: For predictive insights, to bring BI information to non-technical users, to accommodate high-level analysts who need ad-hoc reports right away and to allow different types of users to collaborate and share information and views. Self-service BI tools come from the likes of SAP BusinessObjects, Tibco and Information Builders, as well as some small, up-and-coming providers.

Back at Dealer Services, the company had originally deployed a basic transaction-reporting system, which rapidly became inadequate as business grew, Brady says. The firm provides financing for about 10,000 dealers; each vehicle requires a separate loan with its own conditions and payback schedules. "That's a lot of data," says Brady.

End users started inundating IT with requests for more data and different views. The more technically savvy did their own analyses with Excel spreadsheets, which often resulted in inconsistent and inaccurate data, Brady explains. So the firm looked for a BI platform that would put as much querying power as possible in the hands of end users via Web-based, interactive graphical querying and reporting tools.

In addition to reducing the burden on IT and business analysts, WebFocus has increased the quality and consistency of the data and thus of decisions, Brady reports.

BI as a predictive tool

When the recession hit, WebFocus's self-service module proved its worth by enabling branch managers to "actually see those markets, those dealers" where inventory was aging past a certain point, Brady says. This was "a key indicator, a very, very early warning sign," she adds.

Forewarned of the slowdown in inventory turnover, Dealer Services was able to minimize the recession's impact, both to itself and its customers. It tightened its lending standards and adjusted financial reserves. It also provided advice to troubled dealerships, including "'stop buying SUVs, they aren't selling,'" Brady says. As a result, "We definitely reduced our losses from bad loans and didn't start to see a negative effect till the very end of 2008." That's about six months later than competitors, she estimates.

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