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Timely information: We want it now. But not too much of it

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Workshop The classic complaint from business managers is that they don’t have sufficient information to make the right decisions. This has given rise to an entire subset of IT in the shape of business intelligence (BI) and data analysis tools for slicing, dicing, filtering, probing, and generally torturing the data until it tells you where the money is hidden.

The next complaint is that it’s all very well giving last quarter’s numbers the third degree, but decisions should be based on what is happening now, not what happened last quarter. So the call goes out for real-time information and real-time analysis.

Yes, information needs to be timely, but does that mean everything has to be real-time?

“Anyone who says all information has to be real-time doesn’t understand the value of ongoing optimisation,” says Dale Vile at Freeform Dynamics.

“You have to do a degree of analysis to make sure the business processes are working well. Sometimes a process is designed to go neatly from A to B to C, from an order being placed to shipment to payment, for example. But day to day, the majority of orders are routed through exception processes. The neatly designed process is broken. So you have to commit to this ongoing optimisation of reviewing processes.”

This is a subject that Vile has championed on the Reg before: that often what users need to make good decisions is not another BI tool but the right nugget of information embedded in the process.

“In-house teams may do these massive data warehouse implementations, but frankly they could add more value to the firm by simply putting it into some integration work,” says Vile.

Besides, if managers want real-time information, then reporting has to switch to exception alerts with flags warning when things go wrong, much like a technical support operation. Even so, managers risk drowning under a deluge of alerts.

“You have to go right back to basics,” Vile says. “What are the business objectives? What are the key performance indicators [KPIs] to show this? Now which business processes are vital to achieving those?”

In that order then: business objective, KPI, business process. If this sounds like the exercise IT went through when the system, be that enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) or financials, was first set up, that’s because it is.

David Beard, CRM evangelist at Sage, says: “We encourage our resellers to sit with the customers to work out what they really need to measure and make the data from the systems easily accessible. It comes down to asking what you are looking for. And then making a report once a day, once a week, once a month or whatever is appropriate.”

When a new system is being set up, of course, everyone tries to make sure it does what they want. Ongoing process review is a big commitment from IT as it probably involves trapping senior managers in a meeting room for a couple of hours every so often.

What do you mean, herding cats isn’t in your skill set? It might sound arduous but it is likely to be less so with each repetition. The question then becomes what you display, how frequently and in what format.

BI allows managers to monitor trends and make comparisons: the monthly profit and loss account, or CRM data for customer trends. Is this customer increasing or decreasing business with us? Inevitably these are tracked over time, not in real time.

What you do want to know immediately are things like debt tracking and the stock situation and this means having instant access to raw information, says Karen Ainley, Sage 200 product manager.

“If you are in credit control you want to know which invoices are overdue or if there is an outstanding query against the invoice, but that’s not BI,” she says. “You probably are not going to analyse trends every day.”

To convey a mix of real-time data and longer-term trend information, Sage champions role-based dashboards which are modified according to a person’s job.

Dominika Rychlik is customer services supervisor at Car Trawler, an online market-scraper for car hire. She says: “I used to work with raw data so I was enchanted by the dashboards. They show how many cases are in the pipeline, what stage they are at, how many are successfully closed, how many customers are refunded, and so on.”

Outlook-driven practice management systems (the equivalent of ERP for firms like solicitors and accountants) work in a similar way. The Outlook calendar tells the solicitor or para-legal what needs doing, for example documents to be reviewed and dispatched, to whom and by when.

Again, process design is critical. Design the process right and a zombie can plod through the steps, provided there are no critical exceptions. Get it wrong and the user is constantly fighting the system. ®

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