Business Intelligence: Not Just for Bosses Anymore

By Meridith Levinson
Sun, January 15, 2006

CIO

Jim Honerkamp, CIO of Hillman Group, is proud of his new business intelligence (BI) system. And why not? It’s much better than what came before. In the bad old days, executives looking for sales information, for example, had to ask one of Honerkamp’s programmers to make a manual database query to pull the numbers from the company’s legacy systems. The lag time made the charts "stale the minute they came out," according to Honerkamp, whose company is a $380 million manufacturer and distributor of engraving technologies and hardware such as keys and signs.

But with Hillman Group’s new BI system, curious business executives can query the system themselves and get instant answers about such critical questions as the number of unfilled customer orders, which is tracked by the system in real-time.

There’s just one problem.

The new system hasn’t made the business better—at least not yet—only better informed.

That’s generally the problem with BI, the umbrella term that refers to a variety of software applications used to analyze an organization’s raw data (sales transactions, for example) and extract useful insights from it. Most CIOs still think of it as a reporting and decision support tool.

Though the tools haven’t changed much recently, there is a small revolution going on in the ways BI tools are being deployed by some CIOs. Done right, BI projects can transform business processes—and the businesses that depend on those processes—into lean, mean machines. "Today, the big potential for BI is using it at the operational level to improve business processes," says Colin White, founder and president of consultancy BI Research.

For example, Steve Phillips, CIO at Avnet, a computer systems, component and embedded subsystems manufacturer, has used BI to improve the performance of the company’s sales and customer service processes. At Quaker Chemical, CIO and VP Irving "Bubba" Tyler, has used BI to help transform the company from a regional operation to a unified global business.

Quantum Leap

But taking BI to the next level isn’t easy. It requires a change in thinking about the value of information inside organizations from the CEO down, says White. Information is power, and some people don’t like sharing it. But sharing is vital to this new vision of BI, because everyone involved in the process must have full access to information to be able to change the ways that they work.

Another problem is the BI tools themselves. Though the tools are more scalable and user friendly than they used to be, the core of BI is still reporting rather than process management, although that’s slowly beginning to change, says White.

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