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BI works and plays well with others

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Business intelligence (BI) software products are becoming increasingly sophisticated and valuable to companies through their ability to integrate with other applications, including geographic information system (GIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Such integration helps companies arrive at the data-driven decisions that are urgently needed in today’s economic climate.

"The most important determinant of success is knowing what the true drivers of profitability and costs are," says James Richardson, research director at Gartner. "This requires having an accurate model and being able to bring together data with sufficient granularity."

The Hillman Group distributes a line of hardware products that includes nuts, bolts, screws, washers and anchoring devices, and manufactures equipment for cutting keys and engraving tags. Having grown through acquisition, creating consolidated reports was difficult because multiple information systems were involved. That was the first task that Jim Honerkamp, CIO of Hillman, took on when he joined the company.

"We found that the most efficient approach was to deploy a BI software product that could be layered over disparate data sources to quickly produce consolidated reporting," Honerkamp says. After looking at the available options, he decided that WebFOCUS from Information Builders Inc. offered the most elegant solution for consolidating information from the various systems.

During the sales process with Information Builders, Honerkamp learned that the company partnered with ESRI (esri.com), which provides the ArcGIS tool for geospatial analysis. "I knew immediately that we could use it with WebFOCUS, but we wanted to get the basic BI functions established first." Once the reporting function was in place, Honerkamp began devising applications that would marry the transactional information with geospatial analysis. The two initial applications were territory alignment and routing optimization.

The Hillman Group has more than 700 sales and service representatives throughout the United States, and the process of matching them with customers is very dynamic. New customers are added, new sales representatives join the company and facility locations may change. Maintaining territory alignment manually was slow and inefficient.

"Now we can automatically set up the territories, using the data about customer locations contained in WebFOCUS, and the mapping capability of ArcGIS," Honerkamp says.

Similarly, the daily routes for sales and service calls can be optimized, depending on which stores need to receive visits by representatives on any given day. "The rep enters the list from a drop-down menu, and then the system creates and displays a route," says Honerkamp. Google Maps is used to present the route determined by ArcGIS, and the route can be adjusted depending on construction and traffic information obtained from Google.

The Hillman Group is currently working to leverage other components of the GIS system to develop its business further. "ArcGIS can create a map showing every large body of water in the United States, for example," says Honerkamp. "From our transactional systems, we can then use WebFOCUS to layer all customer locations within a fixed distance away from a selected body of water, say five miles, on top of the map. We can then layer sales information for our marine-grade stainless steel hardware products for each customer mapped. This greatly facilitates sales and marketing analysis—for example, if we see that some of our customers are not selling certain SKUs while others in the same region are, we can launch a promotional campaign."

Having a spatial analysis capability provides an alternate way to look at corporate information. "Presenting information with a spatial component triggers a different thought process than seeing the same information on a table or a grid," Honerkamp explains, "and helps you brainstorm about new possibilities."

The convergence with BI and other technologies is a key trend in BI, according to Jake Freivald, VP of corporate marketing at Information Builders. "As BI gets out to more people," he says, "it’s important to be able to bring together as much relevant information as possible."

BI functionality can also be embedded within other applications. "We can put an active dashboard in a PDF document," says Freivald, "and the document can be updated dynamically." Search is another technology that is meshing well with BI. "An intelligent search might produce a hit that was part of a customer’s ordering history, and then bring up not just that data element but the associated history in context," Freivald adds.

Order out of chaos

The telecommunications industry has been a chaotic environment ever since the breakup of AT&T, according to many industry observers. "The cell phone industry is a good example of how fragmented the industry has become," says John Patton, managing partner at VQS. "At one end of the process are large firms such as Sprint and Verizon, and at the other end are a group of independent contractors. In between are general contractors and companies that specialize in specific activities such as putting up cell phone towers."

VQS is a data management company that is working with telecommunications firms to integrate information across the entire spectrum of activities. Its flagship product is ProgramScope, an information management platform. A key component of ProgramScope is a BI application based on the Logi 9 platform from LogiXML. The ProgramScope solution organizes the large quantities of information associated with building out telecommunications networks.

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