Taking BI beyond the inner circle to the front lines

At a recent conference, several business intelligence users shared their plans for taking BI to a wider audience. Some BI information can now be easily shared using email

Business intelligence for the masses has been an industry buzz term for the past several years. But several users who attended the Information Builders’ Summit 2006 user conference last month say they are embracing the philosophy with new projects to quickly move BI reports and analysis out to frontline workers, suppliers and customers.

Coty, a cosmetics company, plans to purchase BI tools within the next six months, to provide reports to business users in 25 countries, says its CIO, David Berry. The reports will provide access to customer information related to sales of its Calvin Klein, Jennifer Lopez and Vera Wang perfume lines and other cosmetic products.

Coty is evaluating BI tools from Information Builders and Business Objects and will eventually standardise on tools from a single vendor, to send data about credit, trade promotions and inventory levels to business users who have never had access to BI before, Berry says. Until now, BI has been for the “chosen few” employees, like controllers and analysts, he says.

The company is making the move to extend BI to the larger group of users because it is putting in place a service-oriented architecture (SOA) to send and manage the services needed to embed BI in workers’ business processes.

In January, Coty began using SOA middleware, from Information Builders’ subsidiary, iWay Software, to integrate the myriad of systems it inherited through its acquisition of Unilever Cosmetics last year. “The SOA infrastructure is already there,” Berry says. “It is a major piece of work and architecture you don’t have to deal with when you go to BI.”

Moving BI to front-line workers would have been too expensive without the SOA in place, he says. “You would have to bring in some very specific IT talent to do that — I don’t want to have a bunch of developers writing code.”

For its part, Information Builders announced at the conference that it has integrated its WebFocus BI tool set with iWay’s SOA Middleware, to allow users to embed analytics in business processes. Linking the two will allow a user to get alerts when an order comes in that exceeds warehouse space, according to Information Builders executives. The company also touted its Active Reports tool — which was announced in November, and began shipping on April 10 — as a tool to expand BI access to new users. The tool embeds an analytic engine in the HTML of a report in an email, allowing disconnected users to drill down into the report as if they were connected to a BI report server.

Since December, Air Canada has been testing a beta version of Active Reports, to provide reports to its international sales force and, possibly, its customers, says Chantal Berthiaume, manager of marketing intelligence and information delivery at the airline. Before it began evaluating the tool, the company had ruled out ever providing reports to customers, she says.

“There is no way we could invest in the infrastructure,” she says. “[Now] if we decide to give our top-tier customers monthly reports of their past travel we would just have to send them an email.”

The Hillman Group, which makes and distributes fasteners, screws and other small pieces of hardware, plans to go live later this year with a new application using geographic information systems (GIS) tools from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), combined with Information Builders’ WebFocus reporting tool. The application will allow the company to map how its products are shipped from distribution centres, to ensure shipping is cost-effective, says Pete Hebauf, manager of executive information services at Hillman.

“That is a level of visibility we don’t have right now,” Hebauf says.

In the fourth quarter, Hillman plans to go live with two additional BI projects using GIS — one that maps sales territories and another that matches new housing starts with the sales volume by store of Hillman Group products. ESRI and Information Builders have a partnership to integrate their products.

Rich Pedott, vice president of sourcing, planning and allocation at retailer Eastern Mountain Sports, says his company is testing a project that will allow customers to access BI data from a dashboard. Last year, the company rolled out a dashboard to provide internal users with information about operations.

“That provides you a very cheap way to do collaboration ... You are no longer requiring your supplier or your vendor community to make an investment in something like EDI,” Pedott says. “You can send them a dashboard that is relevant just to them and they can ... get insights and help drive your business.”

Dan Vesset, an analyst with research company IDC, says operational BI — embedding BI in the business processes used by frontline workers — is becoming more common as companies seek to give users better tools to make decisions. However, he and some users at the conference say companies must pay closer attention to the user interface for these applications. A common rule of thumb is that training for business users cannot exceed two hours, he says.

Robert Richards, director of application development at Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, says that, for business users, operational BI applications must be as easy to use as an internet search engine. “My end users have difficulty turning on the computer ... [difficulty] with the concept of double-clicking on the mouse,” Richards says.

In the past four months, Carlson has completed the rollout of dashboards built with WebFocus to give its hotels access to performance measured against 12 metrics, such as how rooms are being priced to meet demand.

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