A true, real-time automated analytical environment – one that enables organizations to interact with their customers and employees in the most effective and efficient means possible – is finally more than the stuff of dreams. It’s really the offspring of a marriage between data warehousing and the Web.
Tied together, these technologies can help provide companies with immediate in-depth customer analysis, timely access to information, improved customer service, reduced cost of service per customer and other highly desirable qualities. To put it mildly, the results can be scintillating.
Here are two interesting examples:
1. ASSISTS DECISION SUPPORT
Weyerhaeuser’s BC Coastal Group (formerly a division of MacMillian Bloedel) has constructed a number of data cubes, based on Cognos PowerPlay, that bring together key indicator information from a number of disparate legacy systems distributed across the company.
Presented in a balanced scorecard format on the Web, this Business Intelligence (BI) helps executive management run the enterprise more effectively. BI has helped executives develop insights and understanding that has led to improved and informed decision making.
“Two years ago, we started looking at how to deliver better information to our middle-management level and executive group,” says Brian Corrall, BC Coastal’s director of finance and planning. “We visited a number of different companies in search of best practices in data warehousing/data mart applications to determine the kind of solution that would best suit our organization.”
Ultimately, the development team settled on a tactical approach based on data mart methodology using Cognos PowerPlay distributed through the Web (Intranet) and at the desktop for power users.
Financial manager Chris Spencer-Johnson, who designed a number of the data cubes, explains: “The company has a number of legacy systems, and the beauty of the Cognos product was that we were able to extract the data from those different systems fairly quickly and make it appear to be coming from one source in one consistent view. It’s also quite flexible, so changes can be made fairly easily.”
He adds that although his firm has always had large databases, users needed to be able to form a query to get at the data, a process that usually required the participation of an analyst. “One of the (benefits) is that we can move away from using IS staff to deliver the information and lower the cost of data delivery. What’s more, there’s a whole lot of data that we could never access before that’s now readily available.”
Everything from sales analysis, customer information, market share, margin analysis, financial data – including costs and transportation – inventory and more is now easily accessible.
“This info gets updated nightly,” explains Corrall. “You can see what’s been invoiced. Five years of data allows us to identify trends such as what’s happened with specific products, different species within that product, which customers are buying them and more. There’s a fair amount of power there. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible and people are just beginning to learn what to ask.”
One of the more interesting capabilities the system provides is the ability to monitor the sale of logs.
Weyerhaeuser’s Log Allocation Group uses information from the data mart to help provide valuable insight on a core business. A cube focused on its information needs brings together critical data to be used for analysis and understanding of purchasing trends – as well as a lot of information on the kinds of logs that are turning over.
Every time a tree is cut, approximately six pieces of information are captured about it and stored in an enormous database. Details about its species, type (grade) size, scale, designated mill and purchaser are captured in hand-held devices that are down-loaded daily into computer systems and entered into inventory, transportation and other applications that enable saw mills about to receive the logs to plan their processing. There is also a system under development for linking suppliers into the loop.
“We’re aiming for what we call a fast cycle,” explains Corrall,” the ability to increase inventory turn and reduce the amount of working capital we have tied up. We want to be able to reduce the time it takes to bring a log out of the bush into a final customer’s product and invoice it.”
2. ELIMINATES MIDDLEMAN, REDUCES COST, IMPROVES SERVICE
“In the past, when our business partners (e-commerce, retailers, media) required catalogs, artist biographies, photographs or sound clips, our administrative staff processed their requests manually – responding with information in either paper form or on a disk,” explains Susan Dineen, senior vice-president, IS, new media and strategic marketing at Sony Music Canada (SMC).
“That meant our customers were forced to wait on delivery times. The process was labor intensive, sometimes slow, and expensive. We used to waste a lot of money distributing music videos across the country without understanding who really needed them.”
Committed to a digital future when all the company’s operations will be electronic, SMC’s management understandably wanted to create a strong on-line presence to promote its artists and business partners, and to assist business partners with materials to help them promote SMC’s artists.
Hot off the (CD) press this August comes Sony Music Canada’s (SMC) Business-to-Business (B2B) site, an IT initiative that integrates the power of a data mart with the Web to allow easy access to graphical and musical content.
The system is being developed using Java for the Web interface, with an Oracle database for the data mart.
Content is drawn from four different databases. From a security perspective, only cleared content will be posted to the website, which is also password protected.
Retail companies who access the site will be able to sign on and listen to sound samples, download approved graphics for use in their own flyers or advertising materials, and view video clips of commercials. Media (publicists and writers) will access the B2B to get authorized biographies and photos that can be used in articles, saving them both time and energy.
How they did it
The first step was to assemble a project team with representatives for each effected area of the business: sales, marketing, promotion and press. Subsequently, a survey of business partners provided feedback on the type of content that would be necessary.
As part of its evaluation, the team reviewed other B2B systems to identify additional
components that could be provided. Before the technology implementation began, both a business plan and a project plan were initiated. The data mart component of the system went live at the end of June, and the
Web application is due for completion by the end of August. The project will take slightly less than one year from start to finish, with specific milestones delivered along the way. The cost of the system will be approximately $250,000.
CIO Brian Patton comments that another important consideration is the determination of the data elements that are to be made available and an understanding of how robust internal systems need to be to accommodate them. “To enable us to provide our customers with audio and video clips, we’ve been upgrading our networks over the past nine months, and have launched an entire infrastructure project to be able to provide that kind of support across Canada,” he said. “Also, if you don’t already have the information internally, you can’t provide it externally. It’s an additional challenge to ensure what you need is there.”
B2B saves money
“Our B2B site will reduce our internal costs and labor associated with providing this type of information, and will release us from the role of middleman.” Dineen says. “The company also wanted to provide content that could be easily accessed, and to create a website that would reinforce the company’s reputation as a technology leader in the Canadian music industry.”
What’s more, the system establishes a technology platform and a business precedent for the company to provide digital downloads to radio, order processing and online inventory checks – and an on-going evolution that may ultimately lead to the elimination of CD production entirely.
Thanks to the current initiative, the repository for future content data will already be in place. Dineen estimates that these applications will be available in 12-18 months, but says there is still a lot of legwork that needs to be done before that can happen.
Nonetheless, it’s a perfect time to launch a B2B, even though the current iteration of the application is about cost reduction. Ultimately, SMC intends to follow the natural progression of its “Digital Future: to the transmission
and sales of music of the Web, and B2B is a great place to start.
According to International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. (IDC), e-commerce of the B2B variety accounted for 86 per cent of the $4.54 billion spent on-line in Canada in 1998. Further, IDC predicts that business trade on the Internet will continue to dominate e-commerce over the next three years, rising to $67.7 billion by 2003.