Busting down the info silos

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

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Social media data-service provider Collective Intellect pulls relevant customer feedback data from some 13.5 million Web sites and sends it to Clarabridge's Enterprise text analytics service, which adds structure such as sentiment scoring and brand categorization, and delivers it to General Mills' BusinessObjects-based "reporting universe for social media," says Hagen. Clarabridge also processes unstructured consumer verbatims collected by General Mills' contact centers.

Hagen's team is now working with BusinessObjects to fill in some of the gaps in the VOC platform, particularly when it comes to integration. For example, end users can view customer feedback from social media and contact centers side by side on different BusinessObjects dashboards, but "the two can't be combined at detailed levels," he notes. This is mainly because of the nature of social media: Contact center people can draw out specific information from the customer through questions," but the same process cannot happen with a Twitter or blog post, "so the data can't be as well defined or parsed."

Tom Delaney
"We are looking at our environment in a new way, as an ecosystem, built on identity management, user profiles, dynamic group management, role awareness, content management and collaboration," says Thomas Delaney, New York University's vice president of global technology.

The group is also wrestling with how to consolidate and share information across groups. "BusinessObjects has very robust reporting capabilities, but if you want to create a report about, say, six verbatim conversations that illustrate a particular point, you pretty much have to cut and paste into PowerPoint."

Consumer Services will shortly deploy a BusinessObjects upgrade that allows end users to pull data and generate quick reports on a variety of devices, including smartphones and tablets, Hagen notes. They'll also be able to email the results in a form that a colleague can not only view but manipulate.

Meanwhile, the technical team is "whittling down the range of data" so categorizing and merging it is easier to do, says Bell. For example, "we pull only a small subset of product data out of the SAP system" to refresh the Consumer Services database on a monthly basis. "We don't need to know about raw materials involved in plants, just packaged products for consumer use."

"Voice of the customer means putting information in the ears of people that want to hear it," says Hagen. "But everybody wants to hear something different, so you need a lot of different tools and reporting mechanisms to make it happen."

Help in the cloud

Like General Mills, companies of all sizes have been turning to SaaS and cloud providers to integrate information silos, particularly on the social media front.

BI vendors are starting to extend their platforms into the social media realm, although on a limited basis, particularly when it comes to sentiment analysis. They are also introducing self-service BI services. Other vendors including Tibco, Tableau, Microstrategy and Qlitech led the way, but industry leaders IBM Cognos, SAP BusinessObjects and Oracle, have recently caught up, according to Forrester¹s Kisker.

SaaS offerings such as Tibco¹s Silver Spotfire enable end users to make the reports that they generate accessible to others, not just to read, but to work on. Because such environments are still part of the BI system, IT can still keep an eye on things, adding popular reports to the standard portfolio, and identifying reports and queries that cause performance problems, Kisker says.

Maryellen Abreu
"Certainly you don't have to reinvent a whole infrastructure, but rather take relevant data you want to analyze," says Maryellen Abreu, director of global technical support at vacuum maker iRobot.

IRobot signed up with Rightnow's (now Oracle's) Cloud Monitor service, because it provides "a 360-degree view" of customer intelligence from all channels -- from surveys, emails and phone calls and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Abreu says. The company monitors and responds to negative opinions on the Web, but does not, as yet, structure and load social media data into its back-end database. That's a future project, Abreu says.

"Rightnow is the front end for our CRM system, but a lot of our business is retail, so we have to collect data from other sources such as the Web, distributors and retailers," says Abreu. "The challenge has been understanding what database fields are important to us: what information [about devices and products] is important to telling the whole story at any one time."

The system is now used by almost every department. Marketing uses the data to track what's happening to a newly released product in the field, week to week. Engineering and quality assurance can enter a returned unit's serial number to call up its full history, including customer complaints, returns and black box data. Quality assurance and marketing can compile complaints across multiple units, to track the incidence of a particular problem. Call centers, once proprietary islands, have been using the platform for about three years, and "call volume has steadily decreased over that time, meaning fewer complaints and problems, Abreu says, although she declined to share the numbers.

Business and IT leaders often see the threat rather than the potential benefits of end users' independent data gathering, particularly when it involves dubious sources such as social media and small cloud-service providers, Forrester's Kisker says. However, he adds, "You can't stop the train."

Elisabeth Horwitt, a freelance reporter and former Computerworld senior editor, is based in Waban, Mass. Contact her at ehorwitt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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