Microsoft tunes up BI with Maestro

Microsoft Corp. says its first commercial business-intelligence (BI) application will help make information more easily accessible and comprehensible to people who need that data to do their jobs but don’t want to read complicated reports.

Code-named Maestro, the tool is designed to let business users access scorecards, which map out key corporate performance drivers against which corporate and individual performance can be measured. Although scorecards have been generally limited to higher-level executives in the past, companies are increasingly looking to roll out access to front-line business users, according to the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker.

Maestro is currently in private beta with select customers and partners, and is expected to enter public beta in the summer or fall. No final release date is planned as of yet.

The server-based product will drive data from Microsoft BI platforms like SQL Server and Analysis Services to the desktop so Office users can access the information, said Ryan Buma, Microsoft’s director of business development for Office business applications. “This is where Office as a group is getting into the BI game at Microsoft,” Buma said. “People are saying they need this valuable business data in the location where they are working and making decisions. Traditionally, that has been locked up in ERP systems.”

Mike Bulmer, product manager, Microsoft Office System at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., said the ability to connect with other Office tools will be key. “[Office] is what people are familiar with. When someone needs to leave one piece of software they’re working on (such as Excel) to go into another piece of software (outside of Office) to find more numbers, for example, that frequently interferes with productivity.” Integration with other Office software will make it easier for users to access the data they need, he said.

According to Toronto-based independent industry analyst Warren Shiau, integration with other Microsoft offerings will be a prime selling point for enterprises with “IT people who don’t really have time to be building out BI or analytic applications internally, or even something as simple as scorecard.”

Shiau also noted that adding “deep hooks” into Microsoft’s enterprise applications, back-end or data management systems will also make it easier for smaller and medium-sized organizations to access data and analyze processes — capabilities such organizations normally would not be able to build on their own.

Collaboration will also be a key feature in Maestro, Bulmer said. “[The tool] will not only allow people to understand the data but also see it in its appropriate context, and allow people to collaborate and work with the rest of the office through SharePoint,” Microsoft’s portal server. SharePoint’s built-in information rights management technology will enable companies to control collaboration so information is not shared with the wrong people, Bulmer said.

Doug Lee, manager of data architecture at ICS Courier, a Toronto-based national courier, said his firm is just starting to ramp up its BI initiative. At press time ICS was on the verge of launching a pilot project with Maestro, Lee said from his office in Aylmer, Ont.

The pilot will focus on a narrow set of sales-related key performance indicators (KPIs). ICS has four delivery offerings: tracked next-day delivery; non-tracked delivery (similar to regular mail service); a more economical ground service that takes longer; and international service. “We want to understand how each product is doing individually, how they are doing compared to our targets, in certain industries or in certain geographic territories or branches.” Once the pilot is successful, ICS will look into other KPIs such as service times, Lee said.

ICS chose a Microsoft BI solution because the courier is a “big Microsoft shop, in terms of using things like SQL Server.” With a Microsoft product, “we can leverage the knowledge we have in house, all of what we have in our IT department…to put together a BI solution on a cost-effective basis with quick turnaround.”

Cost was an issue for ICS. “Other solutions were going to cost substantially [more] not only because we would have to buy new infrastructure but also buy licences and all of the consulting support that goes with that, as well as get our staff trained” — all of which is not necessary with a Microsoft solution, he said.

Lee said SharePoint integration is one of Maestro’s most attractive features. “We are looking into better integration with the Office environment…so there is a single constant source of information for the user community.” He also said the ability to import data from multiple sources into a single processing environment will be helpful. “This will help us make direct links to our core ERP and our core operational system,” which ICS branches use to track packages.

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