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Setting application data free

Liberating the user, or IT?

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Workshop The best time to sell someone pain relief is when they are hurting, and so it was back in the 90s, when the first wave of ERP software was offered to customers to ease their suffering from point solution chaos and broken automation. The next best time to sell medication, of course, is when someone is looking forward to some future hurt, and the second wave of ERP was sold on this basis as a way of avoiding the pain of Y2K.

OK, so this might be a bit of a generalisation, and many organisations have invested in packaged applications for more positive and proactive reasons over the years. The point is, though, that the focus has generally been on fixing or optimising processes and transactions.

Yet simply going about business with such applications in the mix leads to the growth of a potentially valuable asset – business intelligence (BI). With each transaction captured, we accumulate a little more data on the way our business is performing and, as importantly, on interactions with those we trade with, whether on the buy or the sell side of the equation.

The truth is, however, that we generally do a pretty poor job of exploiting all of that goodness. In study after study we uncover gaps, inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the way information is managed and used. Despite almost every system having some kind of query and reporting component embedded in it, it’s still common practice for users to download information into spreadsheets so they can manipulate stuff offline.

We won’t dwell on the problems here in terms of user productivity hits, IT support overhead, compliance and risk management, etc. We also won't mention the dodgy differences between different information sources and the way gifted amateurs process the same or similar data using different assumptions, calculations and tools here, either. You would think with all of the automation we have in place, we’d be past all that now - but with very few exceptions, we’re not.

Meanwhile, there has been some useful stuff going on in the packaged application vendor community in recent years. From the smallest footprint accounting application to the largest suite of ERP and CRM software, it is becoming increasingly common to see sophisticated analytical and reporting capability either bundled or offered as an option. We are not talking about the old fashioned tabular reporting stuff here, it’s serious functionality that until very recently would have been considered the domain of specialist business intelligence players.

Unlike the latter, however, ‘accessibility’ has been the watchword, as in a packaged application context the aim is typically to cater for general as well as specialist users. Indeed, one of the phrases that we often hear nowadays is ‘embedded analytics’, which basically means injecting snippets of information and analysis into the business process at the right time, so even transaction workers can make on-the-fly decisions in an informed manner. An example here is presenting supplier or customer assessments calculated in real time, based on recent transaction history and the appropriate business rules, which can avoid the need for manual approvals, escalations and so on.

Beyond traditional core groups, there are many situations in which information derived from business application data is relevant to even non-users, i.e. those that don’t interact with the system directly. The ability to surface information through the company’s intranet portal or via Microsoft Office is therefore a welcome facility that has emerged over the past few years.

Whether it’s interactive dashboard or scorecard views for senior executives, or routine budget versus actual analysis for cost centre managers, more flexible access options mean there is a lot of potential to set free all of that previously locked up information for entirely new audiences.

But what are the practicalities? While we might want to wean users off their Excel habit, how well do business intelligence facilities or add-ons associated with application suites deal with different information sources? Is it a case of horses for courses, with some users served by embedded capability and others by separate dedicated business intelligence systems? And standing back from the technical detail, are business users generally getting hungrier for information, and if so, how is this impacting IT?

Whether or not you think the BI related efforts of packaged application vendors have the potential to liberate users or IT, it would be great to have your views and experiences in the comment area below. ®

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