CIO Jim Mulholland: Creativity Inc. IT head makes warehouse operations easier

Jim Mulholland discusses the applications that made his company's warehouse automation program a success and how he demonstrates its ROI to senior management.

In this podcast, Rachel Lebeaux, associate editor of SearchCIO.com, talks to Jim Mulholland, vice president of IT at Creativity Inc. Creativity is a leading designer, marketer and distributor of beading, organization, paper crafting and scrapbooking products.

SPEAKER'S BIOGRAPHY: Mulholland oversees six IT staff members in focusing on warehouse automation, server consolidation and high availability, and digital asset management and storage. In 2007, Mulholland led an effort to introduce radio frequency technology into the warehouse as part of the company's ERP application.

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Read the full transcript from this podcast below:

CIO Jim Mulholland: Creativity Inc. IT head makes warehouse operations easier

Rachel Lebeaux:   This is Rachel Lebeaux, from SearchCIO-Midmarket.com. I'm talking to Jim Mulholland (Of Creativity Inc). Jim, please give me an overview of your project. Tell me about the business goal and what the project accomplished.

Jim Mulholland:  Sure. One of the issues facing the company, when arrived in 2004, was lack of consistent and readily available sales and financial numbers. There were several source systems from acquisition from over the years and these systems, the data wasn't normalized and they really were packaged in an easy-to-use format. Self-format or PDF format.

To solve these issues, we did two things. We consolidated our systems up to one ERP application. This took the better part of a year to accomplish but when we completed it, it provided the needed level of standardization and functionality within the company.

Then, after that, we implemented a data warehouse and an Associated Business Intelligence Platform to bring data together in an easy to use web application. The data from the source system is cleansed and normalized, in the warehouse, on a nightly basis and provides all the key production reports that managers and executives in our company use on a daily basis to run the company.

The application also provides ad hoc query capability that allows users to go in a more intense and focused area and provide analysis on kind of an as needed basis.

Rachel Lebeaux:  Sounds great. What sort of applications did you use in this process? Were you able to integrate existing applications? Did you have to add them? Were any of these applications that you added unplanned?

Jim Mulholland:  Sure. The existing applications were...The ERP applications known as Solarsoft iVP, and that runs on a high series, mid-range server. We also had a system that is used in the warehouse to measure and queue the inventory coming in. The boxes size and the packaging, things like that. That's called cube-a-scan.

We had those existing applications and we're able to bring that data together and integrate them into new applications which for us was a Cognos HBI tool set, which is a business intelligence platform that allows you to bring your data together using ETL tools and presents to the user in a web interface where they can do analytics and reports and the ad hoc analyses.

We also used Microsoft SQL Server 2005 to house the data warehouse, to build the structures and capture the data nightly from the source systems and ETL platform.

Rachel Lebeaux:   Were any of those applications unplanned? If so, how did you research them and decide on what to purchase and implement?

Jim Mulholland:  Well, the Cognos's API, we researched. We actually brought in several venders to show us how their tools could actually be used in our environment. We asked them to do a Proof of Concept, we gave them some of our data, actually. We asked them to come back and present that data to use in their tool set and show us how it could be used.

Cognos was a clear winner in that bake off, so to speak. Their tool set was very fully functional and it actually was a well-rounded tool set and gave us all the different pieces we needed. SQL Server of 2005 was kind of decided on the onset to be our database of choice, given that we are a Microsoft shop in other areas, it's priced well for companies our size and has fully functioning available tool sets as well.

Rachel Lebeaux:  Okay. Great. Now that the project is completed, how have you calculated and demonstrated ROIs to your business?

Jim Mulholland:  ROI has been achieved and calculated in several areas. First and foremost, we've definitely improved our customer service levels. We have several metrics that we must meet on a daily and monthly basis in order to remain in good standing with our key customers. The BI tool allows us to not only gain accurate and consistent insight to these metrics but provide a window to the future so that we could get early warning signs and avoid potential service failures.

One of the problems with the prior system was that there was no way to integrate all the different points of data into one easily accessible, easy to use interface and Congos BI tool set allows us to do that. I mentioned, the mechanism of the delivery, using e-mail to deliver to pull out data platforms like Excel, Adobe PDF files.

These spreadsheets, of course, in hand, is preferred by the user as needed with their own data. It really gave them a platform of usable data versus the old system where it was more printed reports, hard-copy reports.

Second area of ROI was achieved in accelerative financial closing times. The Congos BI platform has really been a benefit to our various finance departments because they have ready access to currents, general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, data and metrics.

With this data at hand, they actually were able to, over time, reduce the time it took to close our books on a monthly basis by 50%. That was a huge reduction in the time it was taking to actually close the books and was an almost unintended benefit but it was certainly well received. It was one of the original areas we were looking at approving but it, in fact, did do that for them. It was great to have that.

Last but not least, is of course, board reports and board reporting. A lot reports that are produced out of the tool, the BI application, are used to create board reports and provide to the board as is and keep the apprise of keep as the strongest profitability, customer profitability, product line profitability. Things like that are things that tool can actually provide quite easily and right away.

Rachel Lebeaux:  Great. Can you tell me how you sold this project to management? Was it based on the above factors? Were there others as well?

Jim Mulholland:  Yeah. In some ways, I imagine it was a key success factor, the project. That, to me, the first thing we had to do was to get senior management on board. And at the time when the project started three years ago, three or four years ago, I was actually reporting to the chief financial officer, and having him on board was critical.

He understood the benefits of a well-implemented BI tool. In his prior company, he did implement one as well so he knew what these tools could do and what their value was. Other key constituents in the company, after explaining to them what these tools do and how we could actually improve customer service, came on board.

Having the financial backing, having key constituent backing was critical in selling it out and made us successful in the end.

Rachel Lebeaux:   Great. What's the next hot technology you see coming along the way that you imagine you'll envision into your own data center, in the next few years?

Jim Mulholland:  There are several and for us, first and foremost, I think is virtualization. Especially, using VM Ware, I think it was a leader in that space. We plan on pushing out a virtualization platform for the six to eight months of whole-heartedly and converting to that. That's going to transform the way we can not only present reliable and secure data to our customers but also disaster recovery, things like that really plays into providing a well rounded platform in that as well.

Storage area networks, they're saying, we currently do have existing expand. We're already expanding on that and possibly deploying it in a disaster recovery situation. I think that technology is going to be used even more going forward.

More mobile devices. We do have a certain number of our executives with Windows based phones that have e-mail and things like that on it. I see more and more of that being deployed out over the next year, two years, people being mobile with needing their data wherever they are.

Probably lastly, is our warehouse areas there's no automation in that areas driven by RF, Radio Frequency Technologies, scan guns, we have those now, but rolling it out to different parts of the warehouse more than the receiving area, the put away area, using that to help streamline the task of getting product into the warehouse and through to the whole shipping area, and back out to our customers. There was a huge cost benefit there for making things more streamlined and automated.

Rachel Lebeaux:  Great. Thanks so much, Jim, for answering our questions.

Jim Mulholland:  You're welcome.

This was first published in June 2008

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