Viewing fine details in financial data

When Alliant Energy executives decided to prepare the company's earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) reports using business intelligence tools from Cognos, they knew they'd drastically cut the number of man-hours it took to prepare them.

But a single incident proved that paybacks could be much more dramatic, says Shirley M. Szudy, senior consultant in the business and financial planning generation group and lead of the group's central finance section. The tool allowed officials to quickly see that they'd been shortchanged US$50,000.

"We identified the problem early and corrected it before it had a significant financial impact on us," Szudy says, adding that without BI, identifying the shortfall would have taken months.

Alliant Energy's BI efforts started in 2002, when it implemented a large ERP system and created an enterprise data warehouse, says Tim Kreft, team lead of enterprise application integration, data warehouse and business intelligence. Kreft won't disclose the actual cost of the investment but says it was a multimillion-dollar project.

Most companies take a different path, first replacing legacy systems with ERP systems, then creating a data warehouse to capture the transactions. The last step is usually buying the BI software.

"So they never get to the benefits of what ERP offers them because they're going through the sequence, and five or six years later, they're putting in a BI tool," says Colin Snow, an analyst at Ventana Research. Alliant Energy did these things in parallel. "That's how they got creative," Snow says. "They got the benefit of BI right upfront; they're probably a case study of what to do."

Alliant Energy chose Oracle database software and uses extract, transform and load (ETL) tools from Informatica. The BI application itself comes from Cognos, Kreft says, partly because it had been installed a few years earlier as a department-specific application, where it proved valuable.

Now 1,500 people in 10 business groups throughout Alliant Energy use Cognos, which drills down and slices data from both internal and external sources. Users get everything from the daily budget to actuals, as well as information on fuel spending and visibility into related trends.

Kreft also points to another benefit: standardized data sets. Staff members analyzing data and reports know the information is reliable and accurate, with all figures coming from the same sources. Employees used to come to meetings with their own data, spreadsheets and reports and would argue about how the numbers were created and whose numbers were right.

"Now we know the numbers are right," he says.

Moreover, the time to get this data has been drastically reduced, he says. Reports that once took up to 10 hours to prepare now take just 45 seconds.

It's not just the timeliness of reports that makes a difference, however. The level of detail and the depth of data also count big-time, which is what Szudy learned with the EBIT reports.

Szudy's section, which is responsible for reporting financial information on the company's 14 generating facilities plus its combustion turbines and hydro facilities, generally uses BI to look at data and create reports. She says her staff uses a multidimensional cube to slice the data to meet their needs.

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