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Princeton Review educates itself in business performance management

Business performance management gets high marks from testers and other nontechnical staffers at The Princeton Review.

When Jeff Polner joined The Princeton Review Inc. two years ago as its director of corporate reporting, he knew the premier provider of test preparation and college rankings had some serious issues with spreadsheets.

One thing they realize is that they have to make these things brain-dead simple.
John Hagerty
vice presidentAMR Research Inc.
The Princeton Review, which released Monday its much touted annual college rankings (West Virginia University was named top party school), is based in New York but has a highly distributed office infrastructure, with about 30 test preparation locations across the country. Every site was working with financial information, enrollment data and sales data all in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and pulling the information off corporate relational databases. Things were unwieldy.

"These databases were so huge, they couldn't open them over points where they had narrow bandwidth," Polner said. "This just screamed for help, not only to streamline the Excel spreadsheets over time, but to simplify our systems for budgeting."

The landscape was pretty typical of an organization that doesn't have an online analytical processing (OLAP) tool, Polner said. "Everything in the way of analysis -- data collection, data maintenance, reporting -- everything was Excel-based."

Not only were managers moving huge Excel files through narrow bandwidths, but there was also no centralized ownership over data. Each manager had his own Excel workbook for building his annual budget. As those workbooks moved among departments, confusion reigned over the budget process. During the annual budget meeting, time was always spent trying to determine whose Excel spreadsheets were most up to date.

Polner, who had previously worked with a business performance management product, knew it was what Princeton Review needed to get back on track. But it had to be one that the agencies' nontechnical people could easily navigate.

Performance management software is an area of business intelligence technology involved with monitoring and managing an organization's performance. It includes forecasting, budgeting and planning functions. The software was historically used in finance departments, but organizations increasingly want to drive its use enterprise-wide.

"The people managing test preparation offices across the country, these people come from education and liberal arts backgrounds," Polner said. "They have no financial training. Their Excel skills were much better than I would have imagined, but that was largely a function of them being forced to access everything through Excel in a less than optimal way."

Polner turned to TM1, a business performance management application from Westborough, Mass.-based Applix Inc. Polner had worked with the product at a previous company and knew the vendor's technology was accessible to nontechnical business users.

Polner, who works in The Princeton Review's finance department, was the lead on purchasing and deploying the Applix product for his company. His IT department collaborated on the project to make sure TM1's global security settings were correct.

John Hagerty, vice president of AMR Research Inc. in Boston, said vendors are starting to get it: These tools need to be simple to use.

"As companies try to use performance management and business intelligence technologies, the one thing they realize is that they have to make these things brain-dead simple," Hagerty said. "We're increasingly seeing companies target these tools to people who normally wouldn't use them. They make it so that people don't have to think about using it. They just use it."

Before this uptick in interest, businesses would have an analytics specialist work with performance management tools and the broader category of business intelligence technology directly, and serve as a facilitator to more general business users, Hagerty said. He said this approach has become too cumbersome for many companies because business users run into a bottleneck effect as the analytics specialists don't have enough time to serve all the users.

"When you have experts act as a go-between person between the data and the user, those things just naturally back up," Hagerty said. "Vendors are trying to eliminate those backups and make the information available to anyone who needs it."

Polner said Applix TM1 has simplified how his staff can work with data.

"Somebody has to do design, development and implementation, but that's invisible to the end user. After a couple weeks, after they stumbled into all the little potholes that a new user stumbles on, it went off like clockwork. No one had to put in an inordinate amount of hours."

Polner said the first major test of the product's usability was the annual round of corporate budgeting, when the office managers gathered and presented their budgets that were built on TM1, rather than Excel.

"Going into the budget process, these models are very complicated and you would think there is an opportunity for errors and failures that bring the thing to a screeching halt. In TM1 someone stumbled on a rule calculation that didn't produce the desired result. They are savvy enough from their Excel experience to [recognize a mistake]."

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A manager called Polner to tell him about the problem. Polner held his hand partway through the problem and was able to correct it immediately. That kind of response helps to ease anxiety and a glitch doesn't seem so overwhelming, Polner said.

In the old environment, because everyone was on Excel and they had their own Excel workbooks, if someone found an error, someone else would have to go into each of the 36 workbooks and fix the error.

"The gentleman who was at the time the head of the entire test preparation division said during the budget review that this was the first time in as long as he could remember where it felt like he had ownership of his data and a clear audit trail of how the budget evolved," Polner said. "He said there was no discrepancy over what they felt the budget should look like and what people were bringing to meetings in terms of backups and reports."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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