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

Paradise by the dashboard
Business intelligence vendors are now revisiting customer applications to help them make more use out of investments. In most cases this means converting BI from a reporting into an operational tool.

Hastings Deering, a AU$1 billion distributor of heavy earth-moving equipment based in Queensland, has used its Cognos BI platform to extend its demand forecasting from 12 to 18, and then 24 months.

Such forward views are essential in an industry where it can be 18 months from customer order to delivery of the custom-built multimillion-dollar machines. BI also lets the company's more than 100 BI users track their progress against industry trends, and gives managers views of overall business key performance indicators (KPIs) that were unavailable in the company's previous, informationally fragmented environment.

The company's data model has undergone numerous changes, ranging from integration of outside data sources (such as market indicators, and information about missed tenders) to a logical division that split its 70 million-cell SQL Server database into three separate models.

"We slice and dice that data extensively," says group IT manager John Birch. "Now that we've gone into forecasting, my thought is that we can move it further and deeper into the organisation as well. Financial measures like cash cycle, progress and day sales are good, and we also look at more esoteric ones like injuries, [and] how many staff appraisals have been done."

Port of Napier is using BI dashboards -- which give an easy-to-read view of KPIs -- to maintain a continuous view of the progress of ongoing projects. And RailCorp, the statutory authority responsible for train services throughout NSW, recently announced it would use Cognos BI tools to monitor corporate KPIs in real time in a project that forms the second phase of RailCorp's CPM One strategy.

The general lack of momentum for BI made corporate performance management (CPM), difficult for many organisations to implement in the past. This led to many companies pursuing balanced scorecard systems that attempted to combine various BI reports into an overall picture of the business.

However, separate balanced scorecard tools proved difficult to implement because of the sheer difficulty of tying BI data back to operational features. For this reason, the continuing maturation of BI tools, and managers' growing enthusiasm about its possibilities, have now made it more than possible for companies to use BI as a real-time monitor of business performance.

"Most organisations realise that there's a huge amount of value in the data they've got," says Jeremy Ranking, solutions manager for business intelligence with SAS Australia. "What we've found is that very few organisations are actually able to get that information to the right people in a usable format at the appropriate time. We're trying to encourage people to go beyond what they're currently doing with BI to understand outcomes and how it's going to affect business."

The difference in this approach is the availability of real-time information, which allows managers to strike while the iron is still hot, so to speak. For this purpose dashboards can be immensely valuable, highlighting KPIs to which managers need to respond. You can still offer links to let them drill down into the data, but a well-designed BI system should always let managers know at a glance whether the operational issues that matter to them are within range.

Real-time information does not have to be limited to internal data. A commodities trader, for example, might find value in testing the historical correlation between changes in commodity prices and the volume of incoming customer calls. This information could then be used to add or decommission virtual call centre operators as those commodities change price throughout a day. In this scenario predicted demand might also be delivered to managers as a dial that would climb to the right as, for example, iron ore prices drop and a glut of customers calls to organise futures contracts.

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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