Air Canada uses BI as Excel exit strategy

Air Canada is trying to wean its employees off Excel spreadsheets in favour of a business intelligence product from Information Builders, but it’s not prepared to open a competency centre about the technology.

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Following a briefing Tuesday from New York-based IBI on its Canadian go-to-market strategy, Air Canada director of network optimization, Chantal Berthiaume told ComputerWorld Canada the carrier doesn’t need a competency centre for BI due to the decentralized nature of the organization. Berthiaume was in charge of the commercial branch reporting implementation of WebFocus.

“There’s usually the super-user and static reporting,” said Berthiaume. “We wanted something in the middle.”

According to Michael Corcoran, IBI’s chief marketing officer, with users working on their own (and C-level execs making the IT decisions), it’s getting more and more common for IT professionals to be left out of the decision-making loop when it comes to new implementations. So, business intelligence competency centres might be the way to go, he said.

“It’s a virtual organization of IT and business people. It breaks down the walls and gets them to work together,” he said, pointing out that, while IT might have a feel for the company infrastructure, the business people know what their data is. “It’s a challenge, as more and more data is crossing the lines of business.” He said that, “we’re not there yet” when it comes to the popularity of business intelligence competency centres.

In 2002, Air Canada chose WebFocus over products from Cognos and Business objects, due to its price point and its easy integration with Excel spreadsheets, the existing portal, and PDFs, plus its reporting capability.

Usability was also key. “They made it very easy for the users,” she said. “We want to give them as much functionality as possible, but they don’t have to be knowledgeable or overly technical.”

The program now takes care of all the internal commercial reporting, including route control and pricing.

Berthiaume said that her unit is also going to be weaned off Excel spreadsheets in favour of using Active Reports. She wasn’t, however, interested in Information Builders’ much-touted Excel plug-in capabilities, as they were overly complex for her users’ needs.

“We’ll also be looking at visualization,” she said. “We’re going to be using visual dashboards for analysis.”

Information Builders is trying to respond to increased competition from Microsoft in the business intelligence space with a consumer-centric approach and a new focus on partners.

While the company has always been very pro-end-user, partnerships are also taking priority now, too. Information Builders recently announced a new IBM OEM-based alliance that will see its WebFocus product included, through DB2 Web Query, with any iSeries update to a Series i. “It’s for people who want business intelligence on the box,” said Information Builders Canada’s vice-president and general manager, Brian Joynt. (It is also the first of a series of upcoming partnerships with ISV’s and solutions providers, said Corcoran.)

IDC Canada analyst Joel Martin said this is a great strategy, as it will give WebFocus the power to reach across all the other enterprise applications, and will get it out to more customers. (Getting new customers can be a challenge, as the user experience is often transparent, resulting in a lack of strong brand awareness, said Martin.)

According to Corcoran, Information Builders has several other strategies to keep on top of the growing competition, including the newest — and most intimidating — player in the space, Microsoft. These include search integration, and the mobile technology and dashboarding that were highlighted this spring at the company’s annual user summit.

All these features are aimed at making business intelligence as easy and useful for the novice user as possible, rather than forming a complex tool for power-users, said Joynt. “It’s a process-centric approach,” said Joynt. “We’re incorporating the process into business intelligence.”

As business intelligence grows in popularity, focusing on the novice user is clever, according to Martin. “This is definitely the right strategy. You’ve got to drive it down to the users in the workplace and their data,” he said.

It’s being pushed out to more and more verticals, with the retail the fastest-growing area, according to Corcoran, who said that it isn’t feasible for the hundreds of individuals using it to receive formal training. “It’s gotta be intuitive,” said Joynt.

This, said the executives, is where Information Builders has newcomer Microsoft beat. “They’re moving fast, but their strategy is with the traditional analyst user. They lack that end-user integration,” said Corcoran. He also said that Information Builders has an edge in that its product does not require a company-specific support system, as Oracle (Database), SAP (SAP BW), or Microsoft does (SQL Server).

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