Making BI Fit Your Needs

By Jeff Vance

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As the COO and CFO of the Casual Male Retail Group, Dennis Hernreich must perform a tricky balancing act. Casual Male runs a large direct business through its catalogs and website, but they also own and operate 520 retail stores.

Keeping track of inventory and synching up business objectives among the various retail channels would be daunting under normal conditions, but imagine trying to do this with an outdated IT infrastructure.

Casual Male recently updated its entire systems infrastructure – everything from merchandising and POS to payroll and supply chain applications. As they were upgrading, though, Hernreich realized they had a lot of value locked up in data isolated in applications.

“We’re having trouble accessing information quickly from our various businesses,” Hernreich said. Since a spike in demand from the online side of the business, for instance, could affect the inventory available to a retail outlet, this was a serious problem. “We needed to find a way to share important information, such as the basic selling velocity for an item.”

Hernreich did what many other CIOs and COOs have done when facing a problem like this: he turned to a BI vendor. The difference, though, is that Casual Male went with a smaller vendor that customizes its BI offerings to an end user’s needs. “What you get with the bigger guys is a shrink-wrapped product, and you must conform to it. When we described our problem to Oco, they found a way to make their solution fit us.”

Tailored solution

Unlike the large BI platform providers -– Cognos, Business Objects, SAS, and Hyperion – Oco delivers its BI software as a service. Oco’s approach is to start with the basic business problem and tailor a BI solution to address it. Oco then works to integrate that with existing applications and systems, rather than handing integration off to a third party.

For Casual Male, this had nice business symmetry to it, since the company serves hard-to-fit men, specializing in big and tall clothing. Casual Male’s example also points to one of the problems plaguing BI platform implementations. They’re not always a perfect fit for the disparate needs of end users, and the decision to buy is just the beginning of a long integration process.

“The reason many customers have trouble with BI is that a vendor sells you software, but then it takes months to configure your underlying data and systems to work with it,” said George O’Conor, Oco’s CEO. “For end users, ROI is critical, but this process, which often involves multiple vendors and service providers, pushes ROI too far off into the future.”

To be fair, O’Conor conceded that the traditional BI offerings were better suited for large enterprises with significant IT staffs. IT is not one of Casual Male’s principle concerns, and they don’t want it to be.

According to Betsy Burton, vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner, the trouble isn’t the platforms but that BI has historically been sold as a set of tactical tools. “The problem is not the technology or its implementation, but that the technology is often deployed in monolithic application silos,” Burton said.

Get on the same page

Burton suggested that people step back and reconsider what exactly BI means, viewing it holistically, rather than as a set of reporting and querying functions. In most organizations, BI was adopted in a piecemeal way. A BI tool would be bundled with an application, usually in the sales or finance departments, and as additional BI features were added, they were done so haphazardly, department by department, application by application – with little or no integration.

“The bottoms-up approach has definitely hindered the success of BI,” said Darren Cunningham, director of product marketing for Business Objects, a BI platform vendor. The answer, then, seems to be to implement BI from the top down. Have senior management define the business objectives, match those objectives to appropriate BI tools, and then have IT deploy them, right? Not necessarily.

“The top-down approach can be just as problematic,” Cunningham said. “You don’t want to have your senior managers buy a platform, throw it to IT, and then walk away. That’s equally bad. The key is to get IT and senior management speaking the same language and working to achieve the same goals.”

According to Burton, one of the first things an organization must do in order to have a successful BI implementation is to “establish the business case for BI.” Shortly afterwards, well before any technology is deployed, the organization should establish a Business Intelligence Competency Center (BICC).

According to Gartner, a BICC is critical to the success of any BI implementation. The BICC is where an organization defines the scope and goals of a BI initiative, monitors ongoing progress, manages the budget, decides who will act on what data and – most importantly – ensures that BI cuts across the organization, rather than being stuck in application silos.

The BICC is the place where business objectives are linked to the technology tools that will be used to accomplish them. It’s also where parts of the organization that don’t normally interact meet to agree on common goals. “To do it right, the BICC should have equal representation from business and IT,” Burton stressed.

Finally, the BICC manages another important consideration: deciding who handles what data. Data alone is useless if not acted on, yet this is one problem that has unhinged many BI implementations. The reports look good and make sense, but no one does anything with them.

Encompassing process management

If Gartner’s predictions are correct, the importance of a BICC can’t be understated. First of all, Gartner believes that BI spending will grow to $2.5 billion this year, representing a 6.2% increase from last year. “When we surveyed CIOs recently, their number one technology concern was BI,” Burton said. In previous years, the top concern was security. As BI continues to gain traction, Gartner believes that it will be integrated into 85% of business applications by 2012.

Another trend, one on which both the analysts and vendors seem to agree, is that the nature of BI is evolving beyond reporting and querying to encompass process management as well, with traditional BI evolving into BPM (Business Process Management).

“There is definitely a shift taking place,” Cunningham of Business Objects said. “Rather than being all about data, BI is now as much about the business processes generating that data.” Rather than simply reporting that an inventory is low, a BPM tool can be used to determine exactly what should happen next. Moreover, for oft-replicated actions, it could even automate them, say, triggering an automatic reorder with a supplier.

This is exactly the sort of thing Casual Male is trying to do. Hernreich noted that they have developed an application that coordinates and synchronizes tasks among 520 stores. “If nothing else, it avoids a succession of endless phones calls and emails floating around,” Hernreich said. “Instead, we have a centralized way for store managers, district managers, and corporate to coordinate and plan.”

With access to updated, coordinated information, when someone at Casual Male updates an inventory, rolls out a new marketing offer, or discontinues a poor-selling item, they’re confident those actions are based on raw data, not educated guesses.