Busting Down the Info Silos

Some companies have discovered that the benefits of sharing data more widely are well worth the costs and effort.

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Help in the cloud

Like General Mills, companies of all sizes have been turning to SaaS and cloud providers to integrate information silos, particularly on the social media front.

BI vendors are starting to extend their platforms into the social media realm, although on a limited basis, particularly when it comes to sentiment analysis. They are also introducing self-service BI services. Other vendors including Tibco, Tableau, Microstrategy and Qlitech led the way, but industry leaders IBM Cognos, SAP BusinessObjects and Oracle, have recently caught up, according to Forresters Kisker.

SaaS offerings such as Tibcos Silver Spotfire enable end users to make the reports that they generate accessible to others, not just to read, but to work on. Because such environments are still part of the BI system, IT can still keep an eye on things, adding popular reports to the standard portfolio, and identifying reports and queries that cause performance problems, Kisker says.

"Certainly you don't have to reinvent a whole infrastructure, but rather take relevant data you want to analyze," says Maryellen Abreu, director of global technical support at vacuum maker iRobot.

IRobot signed up with Rightnow's (now Oracle's) Cloud Monitor service, because it provides "a 360-degree view" of customer intelligence from all channels -- from surveys, emails and phone calls and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, Abreu says. The company monitors and responds to negative opinions on the Web, but does not, as yet, structure and load social media data into its back-end database. That's a future project, Abreu says.

"Rightnow is the front end for our CRM system, but a lot of our business is retail, so we have to collect data from other sources such as the Web, distributors and retailers," says Abreu. "The challenge has been understanding what database fields are important to us: what information [about devices and products] is important to telling the whole story at any one time."

The system is now used by almost every department. Marketing uses the data to track what's happening to a newly released product in the field, week to week. Engineering and quality assurance can enter a returned unit's serial number to call up its full history, including customer complaints, returns and black box data. Quality assurance and marketing can compile complaints across multiple units, to track the incidence of a particular problem. Call centers, once proprietary islands, have been using the platform for about three years, and "call volume has steadily decreased over that time, meaning fewer complaints and problems, Abreu says, although she declined to share the numbers.

Business and IT leaders often see the threat rather than the potential benefits of end users' independent data gathering, particularly when it involves dubious sources such as social media and small cloud-service providers, Forrester's Kisker says. However, he adds, "You can't stop the train."

Elisabeth Horwitt, a freelance reporter and former Computerworld senior editor, is based in Waban, Mass. Contact her at ehorwitt@verizon.net.

Read more about bi and analytics in Computerworld's BI and Analytics Topic Center.

This story, "Busting Down the Info Silos" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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