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Building a bona fide business intelligence platform

How do you launch a BI platform that increases BI experts six-fold? Admit you know less about your data than you think.

A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved, or so the saying goes. Jarrod Johnson of Mikesell's Potato Chip Co. recommended another adage to live by -- at least when implementing a BI platform -- Know thy data.

Jarrod JohnsonJarrod Johnson

The MIS director launched Mikesell's first bona fide business intelligence (BI) solution in late 2011 and kept tweaking until he got it right. In the process, he increased the number of active BI users six-fold at the century-old snack manufacturer, and has plans to extend the use of the platform to the independent drivers who handle 60% of the Dayton, Ohio-based company's routes.

The rollout, however, did not come without some bumps in the road. "We thought we knew our data and what our sales people wanted to see, but when we got down to it, we didn't," said Johnson, who served as the company's director of marketing research and analysis before he was brought over to head up IT in 2001."I would have spent a lot more time really understanding where our data is located and what sales wanted before we wrote one line of code."

Defining the problem

A 21-year veteran at Mikesell's, with much of that time spent in sales and marketing, Johnson had a good feel for what needed fixing on BI. As a former business power user, he knew the interface to the company's sales history was not user-friendly: i.e., a 5250 green-screen emulator connecting into AS/400 systems. Nor was the output: printed paper.

I would have spent a lot more time really understanding where our data is located and what sales wanted before we wrote one line of code.

Jarrod Johnson,
MIS director, Mikesell's Potato Chip Co.

"There was no easy way to get the sales data into Excel or the webpages relied upon by users," Johnson said. "If anybody wanted something besides the two or three basic reports that came out of the system, they'd have to come to us."

Since "us" was an IT staff of four people (counting Johnson) for 300 employees, considerable time and effort went into building ad hoc BI reports. "It was honestly easier for us to build something from scratch rather than trying to find the last time we ran the report and make the existing system work." A comprehensive, intuitive sales dashboard, with plenty of slice and dice functionality, was a must for a new business intelligence platform. So was the ability to create reports in Excel and other formats, because "users appreciate it so much."

The $50 million business maintains multiple data sources, from a legacy sales database to JD Edwards on the back end for financials. Johnson found the flexibility and usability he wanted in the WebFOCUS BI platform from Information Builders Inc. in June of 2011. What Johnson hadn't accounted for was the time it would take to locate, clean up and format the data.

Making the BI solution work

"We did everything wrong," Johnson said, only half-joking. The first mistake was setting an overly aggressive timetable. "I said to Information Builders, you've got this much money and this time to give me an application -- and with very little input from us. That did not work."

Johnson's team had recently cleaned up data for a rollout of new handheld devices for its route drivers in six states, so the data quality didn't look horrible. However, there was "a lot of bad data" in the databases that the company's current systems had been coded to ignore.

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"When you bring in something like WebFOCUS, it doesn't know the rules that have been written into the system," Johnson said. Suddenly all these records show up and we're asking, "Why are they there?" Getting the new BI solution to filter out the bad data required going through the code and determining how the record got in there and if it should be deleted. "You want the old program and the new BI tool to come to the penny, or people won't believe in the new tool," Johnson said.

Another miscalculation? Assuming what the sales people really wanted to see in the presentation of the data. To get it right, IT worked with a power user assigned by the business "hand-in-hand" for months. "We went through two or three versions of this application before we got what they wanted," Johnson said. "We gained a lot of knowledge that we may never have gotten," he added, but the changes "did make it harder."

Next iterations for the business intelligence platform

A trip to the Information Builder's users summit in June taught them some tricks to speed up the application (e.g., rewriting jobs with a minimum amount of data before dragging names and labels into all the processing.) The exposure has also fired up Johnson's team to get cracking on mobile BI.

"I've connected an iPad up to our current app, so it can be done, but it's a bit squirrely." That would extend the BI capabilities to the company's 100 independent drivers. There are plans afoot to make the dashboards more visual. In the meantime, there's plenty to brag on. The number of users who can slice and dice Mikesell's data has risen six-fold, from four (two IT people and one each from sales and marketing) to an additional 20 sales managers.

The benefits of mobile BI play out on a daily basis, Johnson said, recounting a recent example of a sales person being told by a storekeeper that Mikesell's products weren't selling. "He went out to his car, turned on his laptop, logged into the dashboard and ran the report. He ran back in and said, 'I have your numbers here and you're up 52%. I think we're doing something right.'"

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