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CIOs take business intelligence applications, strategy to next level

CIOs are advancing the capabilities of their business intelligence applications in various ways, including tackling self-service, real-time data and predictive analytics. Here's how.

What is the next step in a business intelligence (BI) strategy for a CIO with business intelligence applications already in use? Recent interviews show CIOs using new BI tools to mine archived data, feeding real-time data into dashboards and dabbling in predictive analytics, among other projects.

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 In the something old and something new category, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is looking at search technologies to mine unstructured data in dead repositories. The 70,000-plus-employee company has unstructured data all over its enterprise, but the main target for now is archived enterprise content management repositories.

"We want a search technology that's not just a crawler like Google looking at links, but one that goes into indexes and drills down even farther from there," said Andy Hanna, portfolio manager for document and workflow applications at RBC in Montreal.

Search technologies would give loan officers a chance to conduct their own queries against the repositories rather than wait a year -- yes, sometimes it takes a year -- for IT to build a new type of data query.

RBC is all about self-service portals. Customers can walk into a branch office and get a bank statement printout via a self-service kiosk. The service, which uses Information Builders' WebFocus BI tool tied to a data warehouse on the back end, takes seconds and has a minimal fee; previously, such a request cost a customer $30 and took three weeks to produce the statement. Though the bank doesn't yet provide this service via the Web for customers, it does offer Web-based access for law enforcement agencies such as Interpol to look up suspect bank records.

"That's what's so valuable about BI … one application often turns into another use," Hanna said. "The personal bank statement service didn't start out as a source of revenue or cost-cutting measure, but it turned into one because it now deters and detects fraud."

From real-time business intelligence to predictive analytics

All 1,800 employees at The Hillman Group Inc., a distributor of fasteners and maker of engraving systems and signs for large retailers such as Home Depot and smaller hardware outfits, use the company's BI portal to access the underlying business intelligence applications. The portal is built on IBM WebSphere, which is fed data from WebFocus, which in turn lies on top of disparate data sources such as Excel, SQL Server and ERP applications.

Also feeding into WebFocus is the company's multimillion-dollar application for planning and scheduling orders. This integration represents The Hillman Group's first step into real-time reporting, with dashboards refreshing order status in real time, for example.

"We just put our toe in with real-time BI, but in a few years we want to get more into predictive analytics to identify our leading and lagging indicators and the relationship between the two," said Jim Honerkamp, CIO of Cincinnati-based Hillman Group.

A leading indicator for Hillman Group would be the cost of zinc or a raw material. A lagging indicator would be margins. In recent years as the cost of raw materials has risen, the company's margins have eroded, he said.

"When prices [of raw materials] go up, we are already behind the curve, and we take a hit to our bottom line. But if we had predictive BI built around those commodities, we could quickly see what's happening with prices, identify the exact SKUs that are going to be impacted and take pricing action before it hits our bottom line," Honerkamp said, adding that the company has around 70,000 SKUs.

Honerkamp also wants to trigger different thought processes among business users by introducing a geographical spatial information tool that would integrate with other business intelligence applications to plot out customer behaviors across the country -- presenting sales orders and related customer information in a map format, for example.

"When users are presented with a spatial component, the BI thought process changes," he said. "They can see that Joe's hardware store is doing well selling a lot of stainless steel, but five miles away Steve's hardware isn't. …We can look at why that is and turn it into a sales opportunity."

Chris Brady, CIO at 450-employee Dealer Services Corp., a Carmel, Ind.-based financer for car dealerships, is starting to play with predictive analytics as well. In particular, she is looking at a forecasting tool by SPSS Inc. to gather and model data from the data warehouses in order to analyze what is happening at a dealership before deciding whether to approve a loan.

A dealership's credit worthiness is not as black and white as a consumer's, Brady explained. "Sometimes what looks like a bump in the road is just that -- it's not a sign that they are going out of business, and if we take the wrong action without the right information we could put them out of business," she said. "We need to be able to see patterns in our customers' behavior to predict what may happen next, and take the right course of action based on those patterns."

The future of BI: Beyond business intelligence applications

Forrester Research Inc. analyst Boris Evelson describes a BI utopia in which an appliance crawls both structured and unstructured data and places all information in optimized storage, where it becomes instantly available. The front

We just put our toe in with real-time BI, but in a few years we want to get more into predictive analysis to identify our leading and lagging indicators and the relationship between
the two.

Jim Honerkamp
CIOThe Hillman Group Inc.

 end requires no IT support and users can explore the BI environment with no limitations, whether data is in email or desktop docs. And lastly, everything is automated to the point where artificial intelligence takes action when something comes up as a red flag, or if a user needs guidance during a search for information.

Not all elements of this are fantasy, he said.

Vendors are working on technologies to integrate unstructured data such as email seamlessly with BI. For example, Panorama Software Ltd. integrates Microsoft Outlook with BI tools. "One big missing link with BI is integration with email … why not have BI pop up as just another panel in Outlook?" Evelson said. "Not enough vendors are talking about this, and we need it for BI to truly become pervasive."

Search technology that does more than spit back relevant links is also not so far off. Information Builders has Magnify and Microsoft has Bing, both of which promise to make users' search experiences more intuitive. Taking it a step further, why not just marry BI and search and call it guided search?

"Let someone start the exploration with a search technology but then return well-organized data by dimension, by aggregate, or allow users to eliminate the search results so you can narrow it down by geography, time frame or customer vs. partners," Evelson said.


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Christina Torode, Senior News Writer

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