Competing through analytics

Business intelligence is defined in many different ways. In most cases today, it takes the form of either basic reporting or data analysis via the use of online analytical processing (OLAP) tools. Such tools are essential in gathering a consolidated view of the business, but in some cases they serve only a backward looking role, providing the cause and effect on any given business situation or strategy.

Many argue that businesses increasingly want help in gaining a forward-looking view of their business and a solid roadmap for future success.

Ernest Wong, director of professional services at SAS Institute, notes that using BI in its traditionally understood form of reporting and analysis tools is comparable to looking in the car mirror to get a better view of what has passed. The addition of advanced analytics tools was likened to having the full-front windscreen view of what was coming towards you, as well as having the mirror for reference. With businesses increasingly looking for any possible edge over the competition, any tool that can give them the ability to predict or forecast scenarios is highly desirable.

During an introduction at a recent CIO panel discussion hosted by SAS Institute, Wong highlighted a report from the Harvard Business Review in January 2006.

"Organizations are competing on analytics not just because they can, but also because they should," the report noted. The report's author, Thomas H Davenport further added, "At a time when firms in many industries offer similar products and use comparable technologies, business processes are among the last remaining points of differentiation...and analytics competitors wring every last drop of value from those processes."

Wong suggested that good use of analytics will help generate new revenue opportunities, help save costs and optimize profits as users will find more accurate data helps improve internal efficiencies and develop better processes.

CIO challenges

The panel of CIOs, IT managers and an IDC analyst discussed today's business challenges and the potential role and need for analytics tools.

Raymond Lee, CIO at local logistics firm BALtrans Holdings, noted that staying competitive in his industry involved simply keeping the customers happy by delivering on expected service levels and providing accurate information to them as needed.

He noted that in the past providing the latest information on a delivery or shipment was very difficult with today's technology providing clear and accurate data is much easier. Lee noted that BalTrans is a current user of BI tools which helps the business analyze shipment data to measure performance of processes and provide historical analysis of shipment data to establish if processes can be improved or where problem areas can be addressed.

"Whatever tools we can use to help us move that cargo in a better way and in a way our customers want is valuable to us," he said.

At Sun Life Financial, the challenge is to stay focused on delivering customer service in a way that matches the ongoing but changing needs of people during the whole of their lifetime, said Michael Ma, CIO for Asia at the financial services company. "Our attention is focused on helping people with lifetime protection and services that benefit clients at the right time," added Ma.

Joseph Leung, IT manager of Bio-Informatics Center, Hong Kong & Science & Tech Parks Corp also noted that provision of better services and support was the key to competing better in his market. Science Park is a service provider and supports businesses with infrastructure and office space. He noted technologies like BI can help the company maximize the use of resources to provide the best possible service to its tenants.

At Cathay the use of BI tools is currently focused on tracking customer needs. Two areas in particular has shown how BI is proving useful, noted Anna Or, CIS & CRM Program, Cathay Pacific Airways. One is that staff can now profile customers and package services based on specific user preferences.

Second is being able to recognize each and every customer when they contact the airline via any channel. "Being able to identify the customer immediately gives the agent valuable information in serving the customer in the best possible way," said Or. "Technologies that bring together the information into a single pool and then help to analyze the data gives us a clear picture for the customer, from head to toe, and start to finish of each journey they take with us."

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