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Business intelligence ramps up the power for business users

Business intelligence (BI) software solutions have been evolving steadily to become more usable by business analysts. Given the amount of information that is collected and stored electronically, the incentive is strong to get value from it. But to do so, business users must be able to access it themselves, not wait for a report from IT.

The city of Charlotte, N.C., known for its banking industry, is consistently rated as one of the best places to live and work in the United States. The city government's key business units support a multitude of services that are provided to Charlotte's half-million residents. To manage and improve those services, the city must monitor the performance of its business units across a wide range of activities.

BI tools have proven to be an effective way to analyze performance and provide dashboards, but the development time using some of the available BI tools was unacceptably long. That led the Charlotte's Business Support Services/Information Technology (BSS/IT) leaders to search for a software product that could present visualizations quickly and help users make valid, data-driven decisions.

Reaping return on investment

The software would need to empower business users, be easy to use and have a strong set of built-in visualization tools. Those capabilities, plus an affordable price, landed Tableau Desktop from Tableau Software at the top of BSS/IT's list. "We now have approximately 40 users licensed for Tableau Desktop," says Jim Raper, manager of the data administration team for the city of Charlotte. "We have also installed a similar number of the user version of Tableau, which is Web-based, along with hundreds of copies of the free reader."

One of the attractive features of Tableau is the ability to easily bring data in for analysis. For instance, users can drag and drop fields into Tableau for analysis, and the software easily connects to other data programs. "Connecting to Oracle, SQL Server, Access and Excel is routine," says Raper. "We just have to hit the ‘Connect to Data' button and provide the name of the database and the table we want."

An example of the type of analysis that provides a compelling case for Tableau's ROI was a comparison of the impact of oil additives on the fuel mileage of city refuse collection trucks. Raper explains, "We put the data into Tableau, and in 15 minutes we discovered that one of the additives was not improving mileage. This piece of data helped save the city $50,000 in future expenditures."

In the past, business users might look at a report generated by BSS/IT and realize they had not asked quite the right question. A second iteration would follow, with the user waiting in the queue for the updated analysis report. With Tableau, users who want to tweak their initial analysis are able to do so themselves. "Putting a top-quality tool in the hands of non-IT users helps them be more productive," Raper says, "and my staff is now able to focus on the more challenging questions that might be problematic for business users."

The visualization capability of Tableau is another strong point, according to Raper. "The default visualizations are generally best practice from the viewpoint of what the eye can assimilate," he says. Dashboards are also quick and easy to create. Data can be shown on a map and color-coded to indicate performance levels.

Live, Web-based training is offered by Tableau twice a week at no cost. "Having all the training available for free is quite unusual," says Raper. "Since training budgets are often the first thing to be cut when budgets are tightened, that has been very helpful." Occasional users can always go back for a refresher. "Between the online training and a half-hour session of side-by-side mentoring, our non-technical users are ready to go," he adds.

To help polish users' skills, Charlotte's BI community stages a BI Olympiad every two years, in which business units across the city compete. "Each team is given the task of picking a real business problem, finding the data and presenting it in a dashboard along with a write-up for a decision maker to evaluate," explains Raper. In the final round, teams are presented with a critical scenario the city needs to contend with: most recently, the simultaneous arrival of a hurricane, gas crisis and bioterrorism. The teams have 24 hours to come up with a BI solution that provides information useful in responding to the situation, presented in a visually effective manner. "Although the teams can use any BI tool they want," says Raper, "the top three all used Tableau, because the analyses could be done so quickly."

Designed for broad use

Tableau Software emerged from software developed at Stanford University for a defense project. Its chief scientist and one of Tableau's co-founders, Pat Hanrahan, was a founding employee at Pixar, where he was chief architect of an innovative rendering protocol for graphics. The combination of query capabilities and strong computer graphics for visualization have helped Tableau take root in about 6,000 companies in nearly 100 countries.

"Because it's so easy to use, people enjoy working with Tableau," says Elissa Fink, VP of marketing at Tableau. "Our customers range from Fortune 100 companies to mom-and-pop shops. Companies do not need a dedicated staff to get value from the product; on the contrary, it is designed for broad use." A customer of Tableau's before going to work there, Fink had been stymied in her efforts to extract meaningful data from traditional BI products. "With Tableau, users can get started right away, and gain insights from the very beginning," she says.

Automating the scorecard

Companies that move from manual processes to a BI system experience a quantum leap in their ability to provide timely analyses of operational data. ResCare provides services to more than a million people with special needs each year. To monitor its performance, the company prepared a scorecard that covered major business areas, including financial data, risk management and customer satisfaction. One employee gathered information from numerous sources in different formats and media, including both paper and electronically stored information, and aggregated it to produce the scorecard. The process took up to eight weeks and was completed on a quarterly basis.

Wanting to automate the process, ResCare hired a consulting firm to provide an intensive, objective assessment of available BI options. The study took about six months and narrowed the choice to three vendors. After carefully considering a large set of decision factors, ResCare selected two products from Oracle, Oracle Business Intelligence Foundation and Oracle Business Intelligence Application.

The implementation was done with two primary goals in mind. "We wanted to have a much quicker turnaround time for our analyses," says Joe Lichtefeld, VP of application services at ResCare. "Seeing data two or three months later did not provide us with the decision-making capability we needed. At the same time, we wanted the analyses to reach more people so they could benefit from the information."

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