Keeping an eye on the dashboard

CHICAGO – Count Brian Zwilling among the growing number of IT execs who have concluded that collecting data on a spreadsheet is not enough.

Zwilling, director of reporting services at New York-based Columbia House — a direct marketer of music, DVDs and videos — was present at Hyperion Solutions 2004 speaking about why his company turned to Hyperion’s Essbase software for financials, sales and human resources analytics. The company now relies on dashboards to increase productivity and anticipate potential problems.

The use of the business intelligence (BI) dashboard is far from a new concept, but experts note dashboards are emerging as an ideal tool to drive standardization across an enterprise. For non-technical end users in particular, dashboards are arguably easier to understand than other query, reporting and OLAP tools.

With 15 million members and more than 20,000 products, the goal, according to Zwilling, was to optimize warehouse profitability, perform call centre analytics and identify advertising campaigns.

The company also wanted to replace its manual intensive Microsoft Excel-based budgeting and report forecasting with automated and multidimensional reporting systems. The Essbase database allows Columbia House to extract data from a variety of platforms within the IT environment, Zwilling said.

Since acquiring Brio Software last year, financial software maker Hyperion has introduced new versions of its analytics software, designed to make it easier to create a graphical view, or dashboards of company data. Hyperion also introduced Essbsase 7, a new version of its database to storing and retrieving analytical data.

The offering features data mining functionality to support predictive analytics, extending beyond financials, Hyperion said, adding that this includes development tools to make it easier to write applications by supporting Web services and XML standards.

But the project wasn’t all smooth sailing. “It was a very painful two months,” Zwilling said. The first version of the system was ready in two days, and the final version in two months. There was a rapid shift in business culture, as “we had to quickly develop training to bring users up to speed,” Zwilling said.

But the end result was worth it, he noted. Using dashboards allows Columbia House to monitor performance and data generated by transaction systems and database servers.

Being automated means error prone processes are eliminated while the Excel front-end allow analysts to develop customized reports. “The time to reforecast changed to days to minutes,” Zwilling said.

In Canada, Hyperion has emerged as a strong independent vendor in the BI/BPM market, playing in the same space as rival Cognos Inc. Traditionally, Hyperion has had close ties with IBM Corp. base on Essbase, which has always been a strong back-end for enterprise reporting and analytics. Canadian companies are no different with respect to the needs an challenges of dealing with disparate data, Rob Berry, director of product marketing told IT World Canada.

According to Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd. software analyst Warren Shiau, the issue for Hyperion has been to take its message up from an IT audience to a business audience — products that can extend BI to a company’s non-power user population.

“The Brio acquisition is helping Hyperion do this in Canada, but at the same time ERP vendors are building more and more BI, BPM, analytics and reporting functionality into their suites,” Shiau said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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