Q&A: Picking And Implementing A Business Intelligence Tool

With more manufacturers acknowledging the benefits analyzing massive amounts of data on both their internal operations and external supply chain, many have turned to business intelligence (BI) software in order to simplify the process. But as with many new IT developments, the provider landscape is vast and complex, and making a decision on which provider to use, and then how to implement it, is never an easy process.

With more manufacturers acknowledging the benefits of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data on both their internal operations and external supply chain, many have turned to business intelligence (BI) software in order to simplify the process. But as with many new IT developments, the provider landscape is vast and complex, and making a decision on which provider to use, and then how to implement it, is never an easy process. In order to sift through some of the options and possible strategies, we sat down with John Woods the EVP of Sales and Marketing at ProTrans.

Manufacturing.net: What issues was ProTrans having that necessitated looking into business intelligence (BI) software?

John Woods: ProTrans International is a third-party logistics service provider that offers complete network optimization and proven quality solutions to the manufacturing industry. Information reporting plays an integral role in ProTrans’ ability to support its clients. Prior to implementing BI tools, ProTrans was relying on a manual reporting process that was slow and inefficient. As the company expanded, it became clear that our legacy reporting processes could not keep up with the increased business volume. We sought a BI solution that would improve the speed, accuracy and functionality of our reporting processes.

M.net: Can you give a basic outline as to what BI tools are meant to accomplish?

Woods: As the overall volume of data increases, BI tools help companies across all sectors to acquire, analyze and visualize that data as actionable information, yielding targeted insight to execute operations more efficiently and to coordinate activities with supply chain partners. An enterprise BI environment delivers timely information for a variety of essential analytic functions, increasing productivity, eliminating delays, improving business alliances and optimizing customer service. Essential elements of a BI environment include the following:

  • BI dashboards and scorecards that give executives and managers a high-level view of critical indicators and metrics.
  • Query and analysis tools that allow power users to efficiently retrieve corporate information.
  • Mobile BI apps that allow users of smartphones and tablets to interact with corporate data from any location.
  • Guided ad hoc reporting templates that enable business users to generate their own reports — often without IT assistance.

M.net: What’s the process of choosing a BI tool like? What were you looking for, and what is available out there? What might be important for a manufacturer or distributor to be aware of?

Woods: When selecting BI tools, it’s important to consider not only front-end reporting and analytic functions, but also all of the other aspects of the information management lifecycle, such as data integration, data quality, and master data management. You don’t just need dashboards and reports. You need a complete BI environment that can help you maximize your information capital. The best BI environments help everybody in your organization to become a better decision-maker — not just developers, professional analysts and power users, but also operational employees, business partners and customers. These environments simplify strategic, tactical, and operational reporting. They also assist with performance management, predictive analytics, geographic intelligence, social analytics and every other type of decision-making activity.

Finally, when evaluating BI vendors, ask them to perform a proof of concept with your data. Explain your business challenges, and then challenge the vendor to demonstrate how its BI tools can help you to meet those challenges.

M.net: What would be your recommendation for a company considering this kind of software? How should they approach the situation?

Woods: The first step would be to evaluate your current situation and clearly state the challenge and what you hope to achieve by implementing BI technology. Obtain management support from the highest levels in the organization. Ultimately this is a business solution, not just a technology solution, so you need to enlist stakeholders that understand each domain. Providing possible vendors with the exact details of what you want out of your BI solution will help them pick the most appropriate platform for your needs. Following that, demo a few different vendors and compare offerings to evaluate which one will provide the best solution for what you are hoping to achieve. Also talk to customers who have similar needs how well the BI vendor has met those needs.

M.net: What made you end up with the WebFOCUS platform?

Woods: ProTrans considered BI solutions from SAS, DataFlux, MicroStrategy, Informatica, Microsoft, TIBCO, Pentaho, Burst, QlikView, Cognos and JasperSoft before selecting WebFOCUS from Information Builders. WebFOCUS offers easy-to-use business analytics and performance management capabilities to promote a proactive business culture. Information Builders also has a broad set of BI technologies that span three product lines: intelligence, integration, and integrity. It’s much more than just BI, but also tools for building complete information management solutions.

M.net: What’s the process of integrating a BI tool into an existing IT infrastructure?

Woods: First you need to prepare the data environment. In our case, data comes from ProTrans’ proprietary transportation management system (TMS). We are also integrating data from accounting, claims, employee timecards and external freight payment systems. ProTrans extracts data from these production systems, transforms it into a common SQL Server data type, and loads it into a database container. After the data has been loaded, nightly extracts are run to create subset tables based on identified cleansing requirements. User reports are created from the cleansed tables.

These data integration tasks consume much of the effort. After that, creating the front-end reports and dashboards is comparatively easy. We created a series of dashboards and reports for Operations, Finance, and Sales. Access to each dashboard is based on each user’s role and responsibilities. All dashboards allow users to output reports in the format of their choice: HTML, PDF or Excel. Additionally, many users can generate custom reports with WebFOCUS InfoAssist, an ad hoc reporting tool that guides users through the report-generation process using intuitive templates.

The data that populates the reports and dashboards is based on user ID to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information. Each dashboard also leverages WebFOCUS ReportCaster for exception reporting. When an event occurs, or a metric falls below a defined threshold, a report is dynamically generated and sent to appropriate stakeholders. For example, managers are alerted when delivery dates change, or when shipments are past due, so they can investigate further. Since ProTrans’ transportation management system contains years and years of information, ReportCaster also creates tables each morning, paring down larger data sets into more manageable subsets for users to report against. This guarantees measurement consistency across all functions and dashboards and also improves performance when people run the reports.

M.net: How does the BI tool make managing a supply chain easier?

Woods: Before implementing this BI environment, reporting at ProTrans was a long and cumbersome manual process, based on Microsoft Excel and Access. Business users spent countless hours collecting data from a proprietary transportation management system, as well as third-party claims and payroll applications, and preparing it for analysis. For example, account managers spent each Monday morning compiling and distributing weekly cost information to their clients. Those users who weren’t Access-savvy were forced to rely on IT staff to create reports for them. Thus we had to go through a great deal of effort just to get the right information before we could even use this data to fine-tune the supply chain.

Now the information is readily available on demand to all types of users. They were previously limited to standard and static reports, but WebFOCUS has given them increased flexibility when it comes to information manipulation and analysis. WebFOCUS dashboards dashboards combine visual charts and graphs, as well as reports, highlighting critical performance metrics in core areas of the business. A wide array of filters and multiple drill-down options make it easy to investigate trends or issues down to the lowest level of detail – individual shipments. As a result, users can determine not only what is happening, but why.

Our business users are now more self-sufficient and can easily address their own information needs. This has relieved IT of a substantial burden, and frees them to focus on more strategic projects.


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