Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Or do without." That adage from the Great Depression is making a comeback these days among corporations that are digging deep to maintain profitability using business tools they already have in-house.
One of those companies is Creativity Inc., which two years ago was facing a serious threat to its business model.
The company, which designs crafting products and markets and distributes its wares to speciality retailers, was being undercut by overseas manufacturers as retailers began to buy direct. The trend preceded the current economic downturn, but it hit with renewed vigor when the recession deepened.
"We've been adjusting to a changing landscape," says Jim Mulholland, vice president of IT, and that includes fundamentally changing the company's product strategy.
To find more profitable, less commodity-driven products, and to cut operating costs, Creativity turned to its existing stable of Cognos business intelligence software. "We made no new purchases at all. We are taking advantage of different parts of the Cognos system, like Event Studio," a web-based events-management module, Mulholland says.
The economy has companies scrambling to use BI to find operational savings and to refocus their product lines and strategies, says Nick Millman, senior director for information management services at Accenture.
But IT organisations aren't rushing to buy new business intelligence software or build new data warehouses. Instead, they're digging deeper and doing more with existing tools from BI vendors such as IBM's Cognos unit, SAS Institute, SAP AG's Business Objects unit and Microsoft. "Organisations are trying to use their existing business intelligence tools without going out and buying more hardware and software," Millman says.
Millman and others suggest the following strategies to squeeze more out of your existing tools while giving your business an extra boost.
1. Consolidate Your Tools
"Usually people have more tools than they need, and that can be distracting," says Anthony Abbattista, vice president of technology solutions at Allstate Insurance and a former business intelligence consultant. Those organisations end up with "different pockets of people doing similar analysis with different tools," he says.
His recommendation: Consolidate, and be aggressive about it. "Get to the minimum number of tools you need to get the job done."
Over the past few years, Abbattista has overseen the consolidation of 13 data warehouses down to just two and has pushed Allstate from a centralised business intelligence function to a self-service model based on the deployment of customisable dashboards.
Settling on a standardised set of tools was the first step toward empowering business managers and analysts. Abbattista says the company "killed off" two-thirds of the tools it was using, including redundant products and "falling stars" -- yesterday's hot tools that are no longer considered leading-edge.
Those efforts paid off before a single new report was created. The business saved on software support and licensing costs, and the simplified tools portfolio made user training easier.
Standardizing on a single set of tools also made it easier for different groups to share and reuse models. Before, for example, the sales and finance groups had separate profitability models that they had created using different tools. "If they got different results, you'd spend time trying to rationalize why that was," Abbattista says. Now different units can feel confident that they're comparing apples to apples.
2. Let Business Take the Driver's Seat
It's more important than ever for companies to make sure that BI technology is being applied to solve the right business problems. IT organisations still fall into the trap of putting their technology out front rather than creating models that respond to changing business needs, says Millman.
The key is to work with the business before developing new information models. "Start with a clear vision of how information will generate value for the organisation," Millman says. "Think about what business interventions you hope to derive from BI tools. Understand where the business benefit is going to come from, then configure the tools and processes."
At Allstate, two areas of focus are managing loss expense ratios and measuring the effectiveness of the call centre. "We've taken experts in the tools and methods and put them together with the business people to find these high-value targets," says Abbattista.
The temptation in larger organizations is to try to do too many things with BI, he observes. Having fewer tools helps with that problem, but management also needs to prioritise what is most important.
"These times have been good because they've brought focus on measuring fewer things well," says Abbattista. At the highest level of the business, Allstate's management is watching 10 or 12 different metrics, he says. While business intelligence tools used by the business units include a wider range of metrics, they are all designed to support the upstream metrics that management is watching.
3. Use New Data Models for New Markets
Right now, says Gartner analyst Bill Hostmann, "there's a big strategy change in many organizations from high-value product offerings to low-cost offerings." But businesses that can't compete in the low-cost market must figure out a way to move up the value chain -- and they're using BI tools to get there.
Which is what Creativity did. To combat the commoditisation trend in its core markets, it used the Cognos 8 BI suite to identify and develop high-value products that couldn't be easily commoditised by its low-cost competitors.
It started by purchasing transactional data from retailers in the toy, fashion and apparel markets, adding that data to its existing data warehouse, and analysing buying trends. Creativity also uses Smart Software's SmartForecast forecasting software.
All that analysis has led to more "design-oriented, fashion-oriented" products, such as a line of paper dolls based on the television show Project Runway.
The strategy appears to be working. Creativity's fashion-based offerings and its other unique designs have become the dominant portion of its business, accounting for more than 50% of its sales and representing an even greater percentage of its margins, Mulholland reports.
4. Centralise Business Intelligence
To help identify the right areas to focus on, Mulholland started an analytical "centre for excellence," a group that includes representatives of different parts of Creativity, from sales to operations. "You're trying to elevate the IQ of everybody in your company in terms of knowing the key business metrics and measuring them accurately and in a timely way across all areas of the business," he says.
Moving toward that goal, Creativity developed common tool sets and profitability models for its sales and finance groups. Reports are pushed to the desktops and viewed in dashboard applications. From there, Mulholland says, users "can go in and do further analysis."
IBM has been promoting such centres among its Cognos customers as a way to create a standardized set of models using existing business intelligence tools. A set of BI dashboards developed for one department, for example, can be extended to other units. That way, new groups don't have to reinvent the wheel and can get up and running more quickly.
5. Put More Data in Your Warehouse
The current economic downturn is a great time for organisations to review what they're tracking and to add more data from business operations into their data warehouses to find additional savings. Just be very selective about what you add, experts advise.
Anne Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS Institute, suggests adding data from call centres, blogs or other sources. The question companies have to ask in these times, she says, is, "What do I have that I can get into the data warehouse at a relatively low cost?"
As sales slowed at Creativity during the downturn, Mulholland and the center for excellence team changed their focus from keeping up with growth to cutting costs. One project involved providing a feedback loop linking the back-end ERP system and the CubiScan system that's used for shipping.
CubiScan is a laser-based scanning and weight-measurement system from Quantronix Inc. that's designed to ensure that goods are properly packaged to meet customer specifications. (If they're not, the penalty fees can be "considerable," Mulholland says.)
While the ERP system issued packaging instructions with the orders, the stand-alone CubiScan system wasn't returning data on whether shipments were actually packaged properly -- and many were not. "There was no feedback loop," Mulholland says.
The IT team used the Cognos ETL (extract, transform and load) tool to bring the CubiScan data into its data warehouse and then built exception reports for shipments where specifications for package dimensions hadn't been met. Mulholland expects the project to pay for itself in three to five months.
6. Make Better Use of Data You Already Have
In some cases, doing "more with less" may simply be a matter of taking data that users already have and presenting it to them in a more useful way. At the Wisconsin Department of Revenue's Business Intelligence Services Bureau, Director Janna Baganz says her organisation found a way to present a multiyear view of tax data on a single screen. "That proved to be a timesaver," she says.
Her group also worked to combine data from the state's income processing and audit systems, relieving analysts of the need to do exception report analyses. Now, when certain business rules kick out a tax return from the processing system, the staff no longer spends 20 minutes running a manual report on another system and then reviewing it to resolve the issue.
Instead, the integrated systems automatically resolve the problem between themselves and process the claim in about two minutes -- without staff involvement. Since July 2008, the department has saved approximately 1,750 hours of staff time and taxpayers get their refunds faster, says Pat Lashore, administrator of the department's technology services division.
In a similar vein, Allstate has had success pushing report-creation and -customization capabilities out to end users through the deployment of dashboards. Previously, the company had a centralised report-writing function within IT, and "it took a lot longer to get answers into the hands of business people," Abbattista says. Now his team creates dashboards, walks users through the basics of using the tool and lets them do the rest.
Back in the IT department, the self-service BI tools helped Abbattista's team get out of the report-building business and clear out a long backlog of report requests. Through the self-service initiative and data warehouse consolidation, he has reduced head count by two-thirds while expanding access to self-service BI tools to 25,000 users.
7. Help users understand the data, Not Just the Tools
Scaling up the number of users who have access to BI tools won't help unless people know how to use those tools. But that's not the biggest issue when it comes to educating users. "The trend has been for the front end to get simpler and more intuitive," Millman says. And certainly dashboards have helped in that regard.
"What's often missing is the explanation of where the data comes from and how you can use it to derive some insight," Millman says.
For example, the data generated by Creativity's CubiScan system was foreign to business people in the back office. "We have to explain what the data points are and what the data points mean," Mulholland says.
Allstate focuses on building that knowledge one user at a time. "We build out initial capabilities with front-line managers and people in the trenches," Abbattista says. "They then become the consultants to people around them.
"It's really [about] teaching people to mine for value," Abbattista explains. In that respect, he says, "I don't think we'll ever be done with our BI efforts."