Terry Orletsky knew what he wanted in a BI platform. Just as important, he knew what he didn't want for The Ken Blanchard Cos., where Orletsky has served as vice president of IT for the past eight years.
"I really balk at the expense of BI solutions that say they can connect to anything. The problem is that the 'anything' becomes the client's responsibility," Orletsky said.
I really balk at the expense of BI solutions that say they can connect to anything. … 'Anything' becomes the client’s responsibility.
Orletsky, a former software code writer with experience in database design and business intelligence engines, said the "really hard part of BI" is building the data warehouse -- getting the data into a format that the presentation layer can consume, understand and finally distribute to users. Instead of dealing with the interface with the data itself, many of the better-known BI platforms focus on the front end, or what he calls the presentation layer -- the reports, charts and portals that publish the data.
Orletsky had another problem: convincing the executive management team that the company needed a BI platform. The executive leadership's exposure to business intelligence (BI) was limited to a monthly report on financials produced with considerable labor by the firm's chief financial officer and main financial analyst.
After considering offerings from BI market leaders such as IBM and Information Builders Inc., he came upon a BI product from U.K.-based PrecisionPoint Software Ltd. designed to work with Microsoft Dynamics NAV -- the company's heavily customized, data-laden legacy ERP system.
"Because the BI platform is focused on the ERP system we have, it has an intimate knowledge of the tables and the data contained therein, and all of the relationships between all the data," he explained. In a demo presentation, reps from PrecisionPoint created a "coherent" data warehouse in days that included many, if not all, of the dimensions required to answer the questions that need to get asked by users, Orletsky said.
And that's the trick -- and downfall of many a BI strategy, according to Orletsky. IT can create a data warehouse out of the accounting system using, for example, the free online analytical processing tools that come with SQL Server. But the first time an executive asks a question of the data that might not have been anticipated by IT, "the whole thing starts to fall apart," Orletsky said. "Now you're going to scramble back and try to create new dimensions." The new tool can also create ad hoc aggregations of information that are not formally part of the database schema.
"The beauty of starting bottom-up is that all the data that is there is known and ready to create the kinds of answers the executive team is going to ask," he said. Best of all, data quality is not an issue. "The numbers are always right. They add up."
Bottom-up BI strategy backed by top-down review
But how did Orletsky convince the executive team that a BI platform was crucial to the business? As it turned out, help came from an outside source. Ken Blanchard hired a consultant to drive a top-to-bottom assessment of business operations and provide a sense of where the company stood and where it was going. During the outsider evaluation, it became clear to the executive team that the data mining required by the analysis was not only valuable -- resulting in a restructuring of the company into five business units that allowed all but one of the founding Blanchard family members to retire from day-to-day operations -- but could also prove useful going forward.
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For example, the BI-driven analysis uncovered that the company -- which traditionally had focused on large accounts like SAP AG -- has a burgeoning force of certified trainers who sell Ken Blanchard materials to smaller businesses. "It is a pretty good-sized business. We had not paid attention to them, and so we started to pay attention," Orletsky said. A new website is already serving 3,000 authenticated trainers a month, and the company is developing "all sorts of" multimedia products.
"This was a complete outgrowth of BI. It started a new business for us, and everybody is embracing it," Orletsky said.
With a new server in place, Orletsky has just begun a three-month subscription trial for the new BI platform, with plans to likely purchase and host the product on premises. He recommends checking back in two months for a progress report but is pretty confident about how the business will react: “I have had enough experience with this platform to know it’s going to be great in three months. We will be saying, ‘How did we ever live without it?’”
And for midmarket companies that may not have an outside consultant to pave their BI strategy? Orletsky says CIOs can always point to the price: He has entered the BI platform game for less than $100,000.