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Insurance firm MassMutual Asia's IT team now finds it much easier to generate reports for its business users, thanks to a business intelligence (BI) project implemented last year.

BI is a set of tools that extract data from a database to generate reports according to business needs. When MassMutual revamped its database infrastructure two years ago, it started to explore an electronic report project made possible by BI, according to Daryl Cheng, vice president of management information systems.

The process starts with Oracle's database and ETL (extract/transform/load) tool set and employs BI tools from Business Objects SA (BO). At the user end, MassMutual allows its business users to access online analytical processing (OLAP) tools to generate reports as they need.

This type of electronic reporting is an umbrella of initiatives that allow different level of business users to generate reports as required. Besides typical sales reports, the system also provides HR functions by allowing executives to monitor the manpower of its team of insurance agents.

Cheng explained that the firm's in-house agency force is critical for the business, as it generates about 70 percent of overall revenue. To ensure these agents are well trained and experienced, executives at MassMutual need to monitor the level of experience within the team and forecast their performance.

With the electronic reporting system in place, executives can now generate detailed reports on the number of agents, their average years of experience, their premium income and sales forecasts.

"My team used to help executives generate these reports through a lot of programming work," said Cheng. "But users' requirements on these reports are becoming complicated. To build these reports and test them before delivery used to take us at least a week."

With BO's tools, the interface for building reports is more user-friendly, allowing many users to generate their own reports, added Cheng-the tools are easier to use and sort data in a much shorter time.

MassMutual is not the only company that is trying to ease the job of IT using more evolved BI tools. At Tai Fook Securities, the firm must file daily financial reports to fulfill Hong Kong Monetary Authority requirements. To ease the job of IT, CTO Nelson Ying noted the firm uses BI to automatically generate these reports.

Closing the gap

To help IT meet more complicated user requirements and regulatory compliance, more BI vendors are bridging the gap between technical database skills and business analytical requirements. Vendors who used to focus on report presentations are adding OLAP capabilities for slicing and dicing data, while OLAP experts have also brightened their report presentation tools.

BO's latest BI platform, BOXI is one of the examples. The company recently completed the integration of its BI tools with reporting tools from Crystal Decision, a company they acquired two years ago. The platform provides capabilities including data integration, queries, analysis of reporting and performance management.

To bring a more familiar user interface to all levels of business users, from financial analysts to business managers, these tools are available in the Microsoft Office environment, said Edward Yeung, managing director, Hong Kong and Macau of Business Objects.

He noted that the embedded tool bar in the Microsoft environment will allow users to access reports and drill down for information from the database using a single interface.

BO is not the only vendor that allows its business users to access BI tools within the Microsoft environment. Oracle's announcement of its BI offering-Oracle Business Intelligence 10g-last month also includes a spreadsheet add-in, which gives users direct access to its OLAP tools within Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

Hyperion's latest BI suite (Hyperion Business Intelligence Platform Version 8.3, also announced last month) allows users to create "dashboards" through a "wizard" user interface. Rather than go into design mode to identify chart objects, pivots and data sources and then attribute methods and properties to objects, a dashboard can be created in eight steps, according to Colin Dover, senior manager product marketing.

"Hyperion BI Platform's user interfaces are designed for end-users," said Christopher Uhlig, service manager and principal consultant of Hyperion Solutions Hong Kong. "End-users can build ad hoc reports very easily by themselves with the data format they want without any database knowledge and direct IT support."

Microsoft has also expanded its reporting services with SQL Server 2005 Report Builder, issued in March. The new Report Builder is a set of tools that allows business users to create their own reports, enabling more flexibility for report development in PowerPoint or Excel environments, said Alex Payne, senior product manager at Microsoft.

"The product provides a familiar way for users to drag and drop fields in business terms to generate reports," added Payne.

Data architecture

Besides bringing database technology closer to business users, generating complicated reports for users also requires an integrated data architecture.

"BI tools are already becoming very similar," said Dawn Kung, regional director, Greater China, SAS Institute. "The next level is to distinguish these tools from the architecture of data."

The success of a BI project depends not only on business analytical skills, but also data integrity. To ensure that reports reflect the accurate business situation, a tight integration between the BI tools and database is critical, she said.

Aiming to bring more value from their database or data generated through their ERP and CRM systems, more vendors from the enterprise application space are providing embedded BI capabilities in their applications.

Microsoft's analysis tools provides pro-active caching capabilities as the BI capabilities are embedded within the company's SQL Server, noted Brian Welcker, group program manager for SQL Server. He said that with tight integration between its BI tools and database management suite, changes within the database will proactively update the business analytical tools.

Yet, Kung from SAS noted it is not necessarily as tightly integrated as it sounds. "It is a good thing that [there's] more integration between the ERP and BI tools," she noted. "But we are seeing very few success stories, [so] whether it brings a tight integration is debatable."

Despite being an independent BI vendor, SAS has an access agreement with the major database vendors, she said. It does not only allow the company's BI tools to access the database, but also provides SAS with the updates for any upgrades within their database applications.

Cheng from MassMutual also agreed that embedded BI capabilities within enterprise applications may not mean better data integration. Although the firm uses Oracle's database management tools, it did not choose to use their BI tools.

"There are a few reasons, and price performance is one of them," he said. "But Oracle's BI tools are in fact a standalone product from its database. So even if it is under the same brand, it does not necessarily mean they are more tightly integrated."

Industry solution

Other than data integration, the architecture that reflects specific industry needs is also helping to ease the job of IT in serving their users, noted Kung.

With 11 industry-specific offerings, SAS provides BI software with architecture and embedded fields that fit each specific industry needs. She noted each industry has their own subject matter-for example, the retail industry use BI for more customer-centric monitoring, while the manufacturing sector focuses on monitoring their supply chain process.

Yeung from BO agreed industry-specific offerings are becoming a major trend in the industry. Instead of developing their own industry applications, he noted that BO works with its partners worldwide to help develop architecture that best fits the local industry's needs.

"The goal of BI is to break application silos, thus our tools aim to bring flexibility to enterprises," he said. "An industry-specific approach might bring constraints with a specific template."

That's part of the reason Cheng chose an open platform instead of an industry-specific offering for MassMutual's electronic reporting project. He noted that since rules and knowledge within the insurance industry change daily, an industry-specific approach might help to build reports in a timely manner, but it is not flexible enough.

"We call them canned solutions," he said. "Since we have good in-house expertise that understands the industry knowledge, building our own architecture bring us more flexibility then using the canned ones."

Cheng noted BI vendors are bringing more features within their platform, but not all of them are useful. "It is a common problem that the vendors are introducing stronger features that are not always useful to us," he added.

He noted while many vendors focus on snazzy graphics and colorful presentation of reports, that's something the business users at MassMutual have found irrelevant. Cheng said their users would have black-and-white reports, using traditional symbols within a table of figures.

"Our users prefer the traditional reports," he asserted, "because some of them are color-blind."

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