Putting data to work

Putting data to work

Summary: It is not new technology, but business intelligence platforms are now understood well enough by customers to drive real business change. David Braue catches up with some BI trend-setters.

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Contents
Introduction
From upstart to cornerstone
Paradise by the dashboard
Towards the future
10 ways to better BI
Case study: NT Police put on the map

From upstart to cornerstone
Business intelligence was largely a pipe dream that grew out of the conviction that there must be a better way to use all the data businesses were collecting. Several years ago the continuing use of client/server applications, as well as the struggle to clean the data being loaded into data warehouses, limits on computing power available to process flexible queries, and the challenge of presenting BI in a user-friendly way, all spelled trouble for the technology. BI wins were more likely to come from relatively limited applications, with specific departments typically using BI for their own processes.

These days improvements in technology have pushed client-side issues into the background: the now ubiquitous Web interface is easy for most users, while elimination of cumbersome client-side apps has aided the integration of BI views into portals and other desktop configurations. Supported by the overall trend towards consolidating data on a single storage area network (SAN), it is safe to say that today's BI environments are more consistent, easier to use, and more flexible than ever.

More importantly, as HBF found, many business managers that have seen BI in action finally appreciate its potential for business improvement, and in many cases have dropped their antagonistic attitude towards IT's territorial incursions. This has helped companies expand BI from a tool for reporting on the past, into a tool for shaping the future -- which probably explains why, after all these years, BI still weighes in as CIOs' number-two technology priority (behind security), as stated in a recent global survey of 1300 CIOs by research firm Gartner EXP.

Much of the support, Gartner argues, is coming from the intense focus on cost reduction that is putting pressure on all CIOs. While basic quarterly reports provide a high-level view of how a company has been performing, using BI to get better visibility of an organisation's day-to-day activities -- as reflected in its core transactional database -- is now seen as a highly effective way of identifying opportunities for cost cutting.

At New Zealand's Port of Napier, BI has proved invaluable in planning the most cost-effective way to manage continuing growth. Years ago the port implemented Crystal Reports to produce a range of pre-defined regular business reports that were available for internal performance monitoring. More recently the organisation introduced BusinessObjects XI applications to extend visibility to shipping lines, the New Zealand Customs Service, quarantine officers, freight forwarders, exporters, and the port's many other stakeholders.

Giving external access to information about the containers in the port, or those expected to move through the port in coming days, lets stakeholders plan their operations much more efficiently. Customs, for example, can designate which incoming containers it wants to inspect before they've been unloaded.

This access also allows Port authorities to organise stevedoring workers to be ready at the docks to receive incoming shipments marked urgent. Overall, the port staff spend a lot less time on the phone answering queries coming in from customers, who can now get answers themselves.

BI even helps ensure timely delivery of perishable goods: alarms can be set if a container has been left on the dock too long and its contents risk rising above an unacceptable temperature. All container movements are recorded in an audit trail that can prove invaluable down the track. The system "is guarding the reputation of the exporters of New Zealand," says Steve Johansen, CIO, Port of Napier. "We are able to give people information that they hadn't even been able to think about getting before."

Real-time operational knowledge, as compared with the canned reporting of the past, has streamlined the movement of containers through the port. In the process, the system has helped port planners defer capital investments such as construction of new wharves (NZ$1 million per hectare) and additional tugboats (valued at NZ$10 million each).

"Over the past five years we have doubled in size, but [we] have been able to do that without taking on enormous amounts of staff," says Johansen. "By concentrating on technology, we've been able to really look at the numbers and wring every last bit out of what we have now." Supporting the decision-making process of so many stakeholders forced the Port of Napier to spend considerable time ensuring its data was clean and that its real-time information feeds were delivering accurate results. The effort appears to have worked. "Internally we have people asking where the data is coming from, but I've never had an Internet-using customer query the data," Johansen says.

Topics: Big Data, Enterprise Software

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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