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Business Intelligence Gives Companies a Competitive Edge

How can business leaders tap into company data troves to drive profits? Learn from those who tackled analytics successfully.

For many growing companies, business intelligence (BI) seems like a pricey option that’s just beyond their reach.

Yet for LaVan & Neidenberg, a law firm that specializes in Social Security and veterans’ disability cases, rolling out business analytics led to the creation of a spinoff company that now provides business intelligence and data processing services to other firms that practice Social Security and veterans’ disability law.

It all began when the Plantation, Fla., law firm decided it needed a better way to decide which cases it should take and which it should walk away from, says President Ken LaVan. The law firm created a BI application for itself first. Built on an IBM Notes and Domino platform, the custom-built system — called EZ Claim — provides the ability “to determine whether to accept or deny a case by running the information that’s input into a disability application and programmatically scoring the potential claimant’s case by using hundreds of data points and rules,” LaVan says.

Use of BI tools in EZ Claim saves a lot of money that the firm would otherwise have to spend to manually prequalify cases, LeVan says. It also reduces the risk of accepting a case that would likely be lost, he adds.

Today, the firm not only uses EZ Claim to manage data about its caseload but also offers it as a service through Case Ghost, a separate business launched by the law firm’s co-founders, LaVan and Adam Neidenberg.

It may seem intimidating to implement BI and analytics. But off-the-shelf tools that can be adapted to a business’s unique environment are becoming increasingly viable (and valuable) for small and midsize businesses, says Wayne Eckerson, founder and principal consultant of the analytics strategy firm Eckerson Group.

“These tools and technologies have become more powerful and functional, yet also easier to use and administer,” he says.

Actionable Insights Improve Business Operations

The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) in Tacoma, Wash., dove into BI and analytics in 2012. Since going live with a deployment of IBM Cognos 10 just over a year ago, PDZA — part of Metro Parks Tacoma, an independent municipal corporation that manages the city’s park, recreation and zoological services and facilities — has improved operations by gaining the ability to better predict upcoming attendance rates.

Knowing how many visitors to expect on any particular weekend empowers PDZA to better manage staff and save money, says Donna Powell, business and administrative services manager for Metro Parks Tacoma’s Zoological and Environmental Education Division.

“The more actionable you can be on the data you have, the more fluid you can be,” Powell says.

Managers now have reports at their fingertips that layer data from PDZA’s point-of-sale (POS) system — containing information from 18 ­million customer records — atop seven- to 10-day weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The organization uses Cognos analytics to ­calculate average attendance over the past three years by weekend and then to estimate likely attendance based on comparable data points for upcoming date periods.

“We did this most recently for Presidents Day weekend,” Powell says, “and between those two pieces, we were able to accurately predict what the ­attendance for that weekend would be.”

The PDZA analytics also let the zoo more quickly review attendance data as well. Before its Cognos deployment, executives wouldn’t know how many people visited the zoo over a weekend until the following Tuesday at midday.

“Managers now know what kind of weekend we had by Monday at 6 a.m.,” Powell continues. “They actually get a report on their smartphone that breaks down attendance by categories such as general admission, resident admission, members and even free attendees.”

30%

Percentage of SMBs surveyed that use hosted BI solutions from public-cloud providers

SOURCE: Wisdom of Crowds Small and Mid-Sized Enterprise Business Intelligence Market Study” (Dresner Advisory Services, November 2013)

Speedy Access to Data

For Marco Ophthalmic, a Jacksonville, Fla., provider of vision diagnostic equipment to eye care professionals, SAP’s Business One platform helped provide a better view of operations in near real time.

The company uses SAP HANA BI tools to process both its transactional and analytical workloads in memory to gain better insights into customer data and, as a result, increase the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and identify demographic opportunities.

“The value I saw in running analytics on HANA is the ability to get access to our data very quickly,” says David Gurvis, executive vice president at Marco Ophthalmic.

The SAP HANA database integrates directly with Excel, which lets the company’s users avoid having to predefine queries and helps them select, import and manipulate the right data.

“Now it’s all there, and we can start analyzing data very quickly,” Gurvis says.

Thanks to BI, actionable data makes its way throughout Marco Ophthalmic more quickly. The company is making better decisions, customer service has improved, and the sales team can focus more on what it does best: selling.

Building a BI Foundation

At LaVan & Neidenberg, there are just two in-house IT staffers, and they focus mainly on supporting desktop users. For that reason, LaVan himself developed the initial EZ Claim prototype using a nonanalytical database. But as his ideas about EZ Claim’s potential grew, he brought in an IBM consulting services partner to assist in developing it further.

This let the firm leverage an IBM DB2 database and Microsoft SQL Server to feed 100 business intelligence reports based on data gathered in EZ Claim.

Managers can now, for example, ­access reports that analyze the historical performance of call center agents handling case applications and intake information for the firm and for its Case Ghost clients.

They use this information to assess employee productivity, LaVan says.

“We know how much time a task should take and the number of tasks each employee has completed,” he points out. The reports also provide insight into processes that may need fine-tuning and measure the quality of the sources that provide leads to Case Ghost clients.

The data was always there and being gathered, but the firm previously had no way to easily and intuitively access it. Employees now have a jQuery-powered browser interface for both desktop ­systems and mobile devices that lets them sort columns of information.

Next, LaVan plans to build in more ­predictive analytics.

The Cloud Option for Data Analytics

Small businesses can also get up to speed quickly with BI and analytics by turning to hosted cloud services or with the help of third-party assistance. Like LaVan & Neidenberg, PDZA didn’t have the internal IT resources to take on a full-blown analytics project on its own. So it partnered with a consulting firm to launch its BI project.

Because that consultancy had already worked with another zoo using the same POS system as PDZA, it had created a data warehouse that could interface with the zoo’s ticketing system.

PDZA also opted to host its analytics applications as a cloud service. “Because we had limited IT support, we felt that adding another set of servers and equipment would be more work for them and more costs,” Powell says.

Be it on-premises, hosted or as a ­hybrid of the two, there’s a BI and analytics solution that’s cost-effective for a business of any size today, Eckerson says.

“The time is right for even the smallest of companies to get in and start using data to run their business, validate their intuitions and even gain a competitive advantage.”

Josh Ritchie
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May 28 2014 Spice IT

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