WestJet flying high with Cognos BI

WestJet has ditched the spreadsheets for a business intelligence and enterprise planning platform from Ottawa’s Cognos Inc. that the airline hopes will help it find that elusive single version of the truth to help it make better business decisions.

To support its rapid growth, the Calgary-based airline had cobbled together what Chris Sorensen, a senior business analyst with WestJet, called a “quasi data warehouse.”

While some basic reporting systems were developed internally, Sorensen said their primary analytics tool was Microsoft Excel, meaning valuable business data resided on desktops throughout the company with no single source of truth. It made for difficult and often unproductive meetings.

“Various groups were bringing data to the table and nobody could seem to agree what the numbers were,” said Sorensen. “We were spending time trying to decide who had the right numbers instead of making good corporate decisions.”

Estimating that 80 per cent of decision makers’ time was being spent agreeing on the numbers and just 20 per cent was being spent doing actual analytics, Sorensen said their goal is to flip that.

As an example, while before it would have taken a few days to feed all the relevant data into the airline’s profitability model, it can be done in hours with the Cognos suite. He added the new platform also gives WestJet’s business analysts more tools to “slice and dice” the data.

Alan Moore, senior manager, information management with WestJet, said during an 18-month evaluation process the airline evaluated the field of BI and planning vendors before whittling it down to three finalists: Cognos, Geac and Panorama, were invited in for a proof-of-concept stage.

What impressed him about Cognos, said Moore, was “the ability to spray-back information — in other words, activity-based costing.”

While the other suites could come up with the number, Moore said only Cognos could also show them the process that led to that number, and getting that in-depth view of the metrics at work was important to WestJet.

The airline is currently using the Cognos tools to support business decisions across the company, from finance applications to route profitability. For example, how many seats does the airline need to sell, and at what price, to support a certain route between two cities.

The system is also expected to be expanded to other areas, such as staffing and maintenance, in the near future.

Doug Barton, vice-president, product marketing for Cognos Performance Management, said there are a few hiccups companies often make when implementing performance management and BI systems. It’s important to clearly define where you want to go and set your objectives at the start.

“Sometimes it’s characterized as a field of dreams…that represents a bit of a panacea, and the hope is that if we just expose all this data the people will come,” said Barton. “It’s not about making available all the data possible, but sifting through that to find what data will matter on a daily basis.”

It was a process of intentional design that has made WestJet’s implementation successful, said Barton, particularly its dashboard of key business metrics for executives. Dubbed the heads-up display, or HUD, after the transparent airplane cockpit device that gives pilots access to key flight data without blocking their view out the window, Barton said WestJet was very selective about the metrics it chooses to include in the display.

“Ultimately, the value of the system is, how does it help the company align resources more quickly, and how does it allow people who have to be engaged to do their job more effectively, and make a smarter, faster business decision,” said Burton.

He added that it’s also important to bring stakeholders on board when designing the system, and to engage key stakeholders in the process from the start.

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