Just 12 months ago a severe paucity of information was making it increasingly hard for superannuation fund administrator QSuper to compete in an industry where complexity had soared over the previous decade.
Now the organisation is facing almost the opposite problem. According to director of trustee services Barry Cook, the challenge these days is to ensure managers aren't overwhelmed by the sheer weight of business intelligence (BI) suddenly available to them.
Rodney Hamilton, operations director for market researcher GfK Australia, is confronting a related but not entirely similar problem now that the organisation uses a Cognos-powered Web-based delivery mechanism to deliver reports to clients. Hamilton says the tool occasionally proves so powerful, the challenge for the Australian arm is to get users to take full advantage of the software that's been given them. There's just too much functionality for most of them to cope with.
As the Internet steadfastly transforms the business landscape, business intelligence is the best hope many companies have of surviving in a ruthlessly competitive marketplace. The goal is to turn mountains of data into useful information. Intuition and guesswork just won't cut it in a world where businesses on the far side of the planet can poach your customers using new and innovative ways to market, sell and service.
To stay competitive businesses need excellent intelligence based on the best available business data. But they also need to make sure that intelligence serves its users without overwhelming them.
Most organisations have come to recognise the futility of building a data warehouse without a strong analytical platform to support it. They're also coming to realise that turning transaction data, generally from ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, into information and knowledge is the key to gaining a competitive edge.
That's what Unilever division Lever Rexona used as its starting point to building its Brio.Portal-based user-friendly reporting system, designed to be accessible via the Internet.
IT project manager Mark Coleman says when he originally saw the Brio.Portal product he realised he could use it for many different projects, ranging from providing suppliers with up-to-the-minute inventory information to providing internal information for Unilever staff.
But he decided to focus initially on the ERP system - SSA's BPCS - which went live in mid-99.
"BPCS was fantastic at the ERP side of the business, but we also wanted to generate timely and presentable reports for end users," Coleman said.
Unilever Australia was already using Cognos' Impromptu and Powerplay products for BI. Coleman says Brio.Portal let them leverage that existing investment by incorporating access to these products from within the portal.
But the company also gets a financial bonus. Coleman believes the days when every Unilever user required an ERP system access licence are over.
"There is a large cost involved and if we can use the intranet to provide information from the ERP system we can drastically minimise our enquiry licence costs."
Now Brio.Portal is the company's main portal for information reporting as well as the information gateway for any other activities Unilever chooses to place under the e-commerce banner.
"Every business is evolving to become an e-business. E-business initiatives generate enormous amounts of data about customers, suppliers, partners, buying habits and Web activity," said Fred King, regional director Australia and NZ at Seagate Software recently. "However most organisations do not understand that e-business initiatives often lack the e-reporting and analytical capabilities needed to extract meaningful patterns from the data and distribute this information in a significant way throughout the organisation."
They must gradually be getting the message. According to research firm Ovum, the demand for BI products and services is expected to top $US50 billion worldwide within the first few years of the millennium. And a key driver is e-business.
"E-business demands application integration, which needs enterprise information management, and quick information on what the market or customers want, which business intelligence provides," said Himanshu Dayal, IDC in Singapore recently. "It is a question of consolidating processes and data, to draw out real-time information about the market."
The fundamental idea behind business intelligence is to provide information quickly to end users in exactly the way they need it, ideally by storing data in a multidimensional form that lets users "slice and dice", "drill-down" or "mine" to get the exact information they need.
BI has application to almost every functional area of a business, from use of sales and marketing intelligence for help in preparation of tenders to the use of technical competitive intelligence for tracking technical advances. Typically its most important function lies in responding to questions from senior management to support their decision-making activities.
A data warehouse is usually considered the best source for BI. Data selected for use in the warehouse is reformatted and stored in a process called extraction, translation and loading (ETL). The process standardises the various data structures so they can be accessed and analysed with high accuracy.
But those who have crossed this ground before know data warehousing can be a minefield, with early implementations littered with problems. In the past too many BI projects were tied to no clear business goal other than the creation of a company-wide data repository from which all departments could dig for the particular information they needed. It wasn't an approach that guaranteed much in the way of success.
Likewise BI efforts based on first generation host-based query and reporting or second-generation data warehousing technology frequently ran over budget and performed badly.
Now, explosive growth in the number of tools available to provide back-end integration and extraction from operational systems and different data sources is making BI vastly more feasible.
Companies use a wide range of technologies and products to generate BI, with the most common tools - simple query and reporting, online analytical processing, statistical analysis, forecasting and data mining - able to be used in a variety of ways.
Some BI applications provide ad hoc access to a single piece of data like the monthly sales figures. Others provide mission-critical, Web-enabled engines capable of driving business processes.
With a rich, aggregated data source, BI applications and utilities can be used to forecast business conditions, improve operational efficiencies and manage supply chains. BI has been applied most commonly to customer relationship management (CRM), enabling analysis of customer behaviour and market segmentation.
In the past attempts to extract business benefit from data frequently led to BI applications that performed poorly and cost a fortune to implement. Now the wealth of data available online and the determination of vendors to tackle that data is making BI far easier to achieve.
Businesses are increasingly responding to the challenges e-business poses by rushing to deliver standardised, user-friendly reporting systems that are fully and universally accessible via the Internet.
The challenge for IT managers is to take a wealth of raw business and customer data gathered internally as well as from the World Wide Web and other sources, transform it into useful, strategic business knowledge, then deliver over the Internet or intranet in ways most useful to users. It's a challenge that's getting easier to address by the day.
"I found it was very simple in the end," says GfK's Hamilton about the Cognos-powered Web-based delivery mechanism now used to deliver reports to clients. "Our data sits in a SAS system. That's where we produce our reports at the moment and do some of the special analysis that our clients ask for. And because we hold our data in the data warehouse it was quite easy to extract the data, put it straight into Cognos, and set basically some very simple rules around it."
But just having a wealth of business intelligence wasn't enough. GfK needed a tool that could deliver that information via the Web so clients could dial in at any time to update their information and print the reports they needed in their preferred formats. Making all that BI Web-enabled was even easier than making it readily available in the first place, Hamilton says, particularly because GfK began its work in an older version of Cognos which didn't allow for Internet delivery.
"We got all the links working between the databases and got the feel of how it all fitted together. Then when the new version came out, which was Version 6.5, then basically all we had to do was press a couple of buttons and the whole thing was Web-enabled."
Like QSuper and GfK Australia, many organisations are finding there's an ongoing need to work with users to ensure they can get the best of what can prove an extremely powerful business tool.
"I think the limitation, if there is one, is that there's so much information available that it's easy to be overwhelmed in just an avalanche of data," Cook says. "Part of the challenge we have is that with so much information available we need to ensure we can identify the parts which are most relevant and ensure they don't get lost in the sheer volume of numbers coming through."
Not that he's complaining. Cook says QSuper, with almost 400,000 public sector members, desperately needed a strong BI solution in the face of vastly increased complexity in a fiercely competitive environment.
"Superannuation has become much more complicated in the last decade. In that time we've seen ourselves go from virtually a single product organisation where the members had no choice to offering multiple products with multiple choices. And as we've moved from the standard product to the multiple choice product, the management information system has become a fundamental tool in enabling us to keep track of what's happening."
A working BI prototype built by Dialog Information Technology using Cognos data "cubes" to deliver information of relevance to particular groups of users has not only provided the information managers need but has raised awareness of the usefulness of such information.
Now QSuper is coming to grips with how useful such information can be as it moves into a full production system.
"I guess there are two challenges," Cook says. "One is to build the system. The other is to continue to develop the management appreciation of the use of the system and to ensure that we extract the maximum benefit from it. As people get more exposure [to BI] I think that's building an appreciation and an interest and indeed a demand for information, so it sort of grows on itself. It's probably a bit like bacteria - once you've got the culture growing it keeps going and takes on a life of its own."
Traditional methods of information delivery simply don't work in the electronic age. Before installing Cognos PowerPlay, GfK produced some reports that were more than 500 pages long in a hard copy format which then needed to be copied and distributed by courier to the company's clients - a process which was both time and materials intensive.
Today GfK receives source data from a wide range of retailers on their sales activity, and uses Cognos PowerPlay to consolidate and produce reports and analysis on that information.
"While some of our customers were asking for information to be available online, others were only starting to come to grips with electronic communication," Hamilton said. "Because we need to be at the forefront of our customers' needs, it was obvious we needed to do something, but it needed to be as user-friendly as possible."
Now the company has cut delivery time for reports by up to four days and gives clients more detailed information than ever before. Following the introduction of the new system, GfK is looking forward to eliminating the paper-based reporting method completely.
"As more of our clients get online we are looking forward to being able to stop producing such mammoth reports on paper. The Cognos solution to our delivery has meant we are servicing customers in a more efficient, less expensive and less wasteful manner. It's easier for both them and us."
When Queensland's Land Services Program needed to measure productivity and service standards for thousands of employees across the state, the ability to record and analyse time and activity against contract, job or project was seen as vital.
Dialog developed an e-business solution to the Land Services Program challenge that draws on 16 disparate database systems.
The solution is a Web-enabled management information system known as MIS. It is based around three layers of technology including: a data warehouse, workflow applications (job costing, job-tracking and project management) and business intelligence tools (for data enquiry and analysis).
The 15-month project was rolled out in two phases - the first concerned building the data warehouse and creating the workflow applications. The second concerned the data analysis and management reporting features.
"The level of reporting and analysis we need with regard to time sheet and business activity information would typically cost the department around $1 million a year using existing processes," said DNR project manager, Des Diggles.
"By automating time sheets and marrying the data with other relevant information in the data warehouse, then mining and analysing that information, we could save three quarters of a million dollars.
"The data warehouse makes stored data much more visible and accessible to everyone. This provides a clearer understanding of what each activity costs in terms of time and overheads. We will be able to plan more effectively and identify key areas and issues to be addressed. Detailed reporting available from the system will meet the information requirements of management and other stakeholders such as Treasury."