Tame the BI Jungle

A single set of BI reporting tools can bring order to the chaos.

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Many companies are eager to make sure data gathered from business intelligence tools gets into the right hands. Although the power user normally gets the benefit, the real value is in pushing BI data out to frontline workers for operational decision-making and up to executives for strategic adjustments in the direction of the business.

However, to successfully obtain the "one version of the truth" needed to exploit BI data for decisions that might affect daily operations, many companies find they must first eliminate multiple redundant BI tools and instead embrace a standard set of tools.

Five years ago, for example, Del Monte Foods Co. began an assessment of its BI and analytic tools to determine the company's strengths and weaknesses and develop an approach for enterprise BI. The San Francisco-based company found it had six different query and reporting tools, says Andy Wojewodka, Del Monte's director of business systems and decision support. "It was almost like whatever package that addressed transactional systems had a reporting tool bolted onto it," he says. "People were going off and developing their own reports. There wasn't any cohesiveness, and we ended up with numerous versions of the truth."

In late 2004, Del Monte decided to use Cognos Inc.'s Cognos Enterprise BI tools for business and production reporting and data analysis. In May, the company rolled out the first phase of its Cognos deployment to sales, marketing and finance users for a project to enable trade spending analysis. By the end of the year, the company will have 600 users on the system, Wojewodka says.

Del Monte has built a single Oracle enterprise data warehouse with information to support BI inquiries companywide. In addition, the company has layered Cognos analytics on top of the warehouse to provide interactive dashboards for executives.

"The business owner has a dashboard available where they can assess how they are trending and then can quickly link... with additional information to answer questions they may have so they can take action," Wojewodka says.

From Manual to Meaningful

Like many other companies, Cross Country Healthcare Inc. needed to standardize BI in order to bolster visibility and interpret data generated by different back-end transactional systems. Before standardizing on Business Objects SA's XI platform earlier this year, Cross Country was using tools from Cognos, Microsoft Corp. and other vendors to perform queries in silos based on the platform, says Kip Vann, CIO of the Boca Raton, Fla.-based medical staffing company.

"It took an act of Congress to get anything meaningful to the business, [and] every request required manual intervention with spreadsheets," he says. "We couldn't get a full view of the customer."

Although Cross Country hasn't completed projections of its return on investment from the standardization, Vann says 60% of requests to the company's IT department require information reporting. The company has consolidated its support staff around XI, which justifies the cost of the software, he adds.

Seven Tips for Consolidating BI Tools
1 Build a strong case for displacing existing tools.
2 Build trust between users and the IT department.
3 Develop tool preference based on concrete selection criteria.
4 Create an acquisition process that requires approval from a BI competency center before buying new BI licenses.
5 Establish internal user groups to help promote standard tools.
6 If users refuse to cooperate, introduce a BI usage policy.
7 Prove to the business on a recurring basis that its needs can be met with standard tools
SOURCE: Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn

Pearl River Resort, which operates a resort and casino in Mississippi, uses a Unix-based system to track slot-machine activity and an IBM AS/400 system to track other guest gaming habits; different databases track guest buying behavior at its water park, hotels and restaurants.

Before turning to a BI system from Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc., the company was using AS/400 querying tools or Access databases connected to source tables to generate reports about guest behavior, says Jason York, director of database marketing and special projects at the Choctaw, Miss.-based company.

"To get information on our guests from a gaming standpoint was very labor-intensive and required a lot of technical knowledge about the different operational systems," York says. "There were performance issues with regard to getting at the data. Everybody was looking for specific information that was unique to their area, and more and more questions began to arise." Since launching the SAS tools, Pearl River has reduced the time it takes to answer a simple query about guest behavior from several weeks to one day, he adds.

Smooth Transition

The cost and complexity of maintaining multiple BI tools is the main driver for most organizations to consolidate, notes Dan Vessett, an analyst at IDC. However, enterprises need to be aware that the biggest obstacle to standardizing is end-user reluctance to give up tools they are accustomed to using, he adds.

"One way to get around that is to make sure the new interface matches exactly or as closely as possible whatever end users were used to seeing in their old applications," he says.

But for those companies that have successfully migrated to a single tool set, the benefits can be substantial. For example, La Petite Academy Inc., a Chicago-based company that operates 650 preschools, has been able to lower its labor costs by 10% to 20% since replacing reporting tools included in its AS/400 and SQL and Access databases with an enterprise BI system from Information Builders Inc.

Before using WebFocus, the company's IT staff had to monitor multiple reports, since the company imported financial and operational field data from each location, says Chuck Mason, La Petite's senior business intelligence analyst.

"It was difficult for our operational staff to coordinate efforts when issues occurred," he says. "Our solution was to provide a simple daily report that monitors and provides updates on our nightly import processes from all our academies. This provides our staff one report to monitor and use to investigate any outstanding data issues, instead of having to track down issues across several machines and reports."

For many companies, reducing the number of tools used to extract data from back-end systems is a key step toward relying on BI as a mission-critical application. And though they might encounter user resistance along the way, those that persevere have found the benefits of reduced cost and complexity worth the effort.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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