IT, business intelligence in harmony

There’s so much noise generated by experts chanting the “information is key to business success” mantra that it’s a mush of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and classical instead of a single piece of music.

Certainly information is a vital part of every business, but we all wince at the sight of piles of reports on our desks. Now IT aims to pick up where those stacks of green-bar computer printouts left off. No longer will anyone comb through pages to assemble charts, tables and graphs of sales, revenue and expense reports.

Business intelligence vendors such as Cognos Inc., Crystal Decisions Inc. and Business Objects Inc. combine various Internet-based technologies with thin clients to push business reporting tools further down into a company’s operations, making it possible for line personnel to have the reports they need along with sophisticated analytics.

At ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, access to graphically presented reports by departments such as marketing, sales and manufacturing comes courtesy of business intelligence software from Business Objects. Hard-copy reports are out. Outwardly facing Web-based connections to back-end systems are in.

A line manager checking a parts inventory or an accounts-payable clerk looking to see which invoices must be paid don’t need two separate IT systems. For strategic thinkers, access to different versions of a report (who says you can’t slice and dice information?) means there’s no excuse for departments not knowing the overall picture.

Connecting to larger-scale ERP and CRM systems from Siebel Systems, SAP and PeopleSoft is easier thanks to TCP/IP connections and the general openness of LANs and WANs. As a result, more people have cost-effective access to the network.

Tools from vendors such as Crystal Decisions can be a part of the IT infrastructure if your company lives by the reports it uses.

But there are some IT details to investigate. How does the business intelligence system schedule data extraction? Can you gather data from multiple locations? How about from disparate systems? Determine how difficult data integration will be before you go soft at the knees drooling over the myriad reports and formats you can click through.

Check for sign-on functions that integrate with existing security roles, and ask about database drivers (ODBC, MDX and COM objects) to make sure yours are supported and work.

Business intelligence can be a harmony, but for that to happen, IT’s got to pick up the conductor’s baton.

Pimm Fox is Computerworld (US)’s West Coast bureau chief. Contact him

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