Farmer co-op harvests crucial customer data in real-time

Although the impact of the recent mad-cow disease scare coupled with the always-unpredictable weather and seasons on The Prairies can be tough to forecast, the United Farmers of Alberta recently decided it was time to at least improve how quickly it reacts to such incidents.

Up to a year ago, the Calgary-based farm supply and petroleum marketing co-operative, which operates 34 stores and 120 petroleum outlets across Western Canada, serving approximately 110,000 members, relied on a vast paper trail to track its key performance indicators, including product performance, marketing campaigns and customer buying trends.

“The big problem was the business units didn’t have timely information,” said Tim Duthie, business needs analyst with United Farmers of Alberta (UFA). The organization typically compiles its sales data in October, but “we didn’t know them until six weeks later,” he added.

Access was another problem. The staff who needed to get their hands on the sales numbers were the least equipped to obtain them. Instead, they called on Duthie and the rest of the IS staff, who had to perform remote program generator-based queries on UFA’s AS/400 system.

Resolved to address the data time lag, UFA went shopping for a business intelligence software tool. They opted for a combination of Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server Accelerator and Cognos Corp.’s Po werPlay and Impromptu tools on the front end to drive reports. Duthie said he opted for Windows because of what he judged to be its rapid install time, and ability to integrate well with its existing IT system.

UFA turned to Calgary-based integrator Quadrus Development Inc. to take on most of the install work.

Although business intelligence software projects often stumble on issues of data quality – dealing with corporate information stored multiple times, or in several different formats – Duthie said because he knew exactly which data sets he wanted to get into his users’ hands, UFA’s biggest challenge turned out to be something quite different.

“It was the ‘field-of-dreams’ program,” he recalled. Staff who would ultimately be working with the software were immediately taken by its potential, and subsequently deluged the IS team with requests. “Whey they saw how easy it was…that’s when we had to watch the scope.”

Duthie said UFA also underestimated the compute power the new system would demand. “They were hitting the system harder and faster,” with reports, he said, prompting a new server purchase as a result.

Today, each UFA outlet is equipped with a point-of-sale tracking device, which feeds sales data directly into the system. Access to that data has already changed the way the organization advertises. For example, if incidents such as mad cow arise, how they affect sales can be quickly deduced, and a message tailor made to answer them.

Given that ability, Duthie said acquiring SQL was a relatively easy sell. “You can easily make a business case for this technology,” he added.

Duthie recommends other companies simply adhere to solid project management fundamentals when dealing with business intelligence software: tackling installation in small pieces, and making sure the business side is aware of the benefits and supports the process.

According to Darren Massel, product manager for SQL Server at Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., that shouldn’t be too difficult. He said internal business intelligence projects often find across-the-board support, particularly today as companies are trying to drive more real-time information on their sales. “The business folks…(and) finance definitely are areas that require reporting capabilities,” he said. “Sales and marketing organizations need this information.”

Meanwhile, IS departments want to have “everyone working off a single source of data that’s trustworthy,” Massel added.

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