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Transforming numbers into BI

Managing the mix of data and dollars

With a mission to create value through technological innovation, Agilent Labs was granted 75 patents last year. Those keep the number-crunchers busy, sorting out the company’s investments in a mix of R&D projects, each with different characteristics and requiring different accounting measures.

Some projects are closely tied to existing businesses, others are loosely tied and still others are pushing the envelope and targeted at creating new businesses. The result is a complicated mix of data and dollars to manage.

Agilent Labs is the central research facility for Agilent Technologies--a spin-off of Hewlett-Packard--with net revenues of more than $8 billion and 42,000 employees.

"We have a real need to closely manage our investment in the different projects and portfolios," explains Constance Finch, financial operations manager with Agilent Labs. "We have things we want to measure, and each one of those projects has a vast number of different attributes: How many people are working on it? How much is that costing just for the expenses of the laboratory? What is the overhead? Where is the project in terms of life cycle? Doing that in a spreadsheet would be a nightmare."

And when the finance department disseminates information to the various lab directors, it sparks even more questions.

"So we needed to go back and separate the information in different ways," Finch explains. "That’s neither quick nor easy with a relational database because users have to write very specific queries. And if you don’t ask the right question, you have to write the query over again."

In searching for a solution, Agilent Labs wanted a Web-enabled database because the goal "is not just to provide numbers, but it’s also to provide business intelligence," according to Finch. "Managers need more than just numbers; they need to know the stories behind the numbers."

Agilent Labs chose technology from AlphaBlox, which enables creation of customizable Web sites that include only the information individuals want to see. A CEO, for example, might want an overview of the entire company or just what’s happening on the business side of the medical industry. A lab manager, as another example, might only be interested in one or two projects--who’s doing what for whom and what stage the projects are at.

"And because it’s on the Web site, we can include links to information in our corporate library," says Finch. "For example, the CEO could have a link that says, ‘Any time there is a development in gas chromatography, whether in science or business, send me the article and send the analytical medical lab director a copy too.’ All of a sudden people can link what they are doing at Labs to the external business world and to Agilent’s individual business."

The average finance department, according to Finch, used to spend 80% of its time getting numbers together and just 20% doing analysis. "Now we can spend 10% of our time getting the numbers together," she says, "and 90% of our time making it valuable, making it actionable, making it intelligence instead of just information."

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