Measure. Analyze. Perform.By David Baum
Oracle turns information into Intelligence and intelligence into enterprise performance.
Getting timely, easy-to-access business information that helps organizations make critical decisions—and map strategies—can be a stretch. Oracle's business intelligence (BI) and enterprise performance management (EPM) products and technologies, however, support organizations by making information available across the enterprise and by helping them plan and achieve their performance goals.
John Kopcke, Oracle's senior vice president of business intelligence and performance management, says Oracle's idea of "pervasive BI" has been motivated by a few fundamental principles. "Information must be relevant to all users," he says. "It must be delivered in time to affect business results. It must be accessible through a broad range of mediums such as dashboards, alerts, and reports. And it must be integrated seamlessly into business processes and workflows."
These concepts are quickly becoming reality at Cox Enterprises, one of the nation's leading media companies, where more than 100 BI experts throughout the organization are developing self-service reporting environments for tens of thousands of users. To reduce IT costs, Cox is encouraging its BI team to standardize on a handful of robust tools such as Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition and Oracle's Hyperion Essbase - System 9.
Spencer Taft, business intelligence group manager for Cox Enterprises, describes a successful BI venture in the HR department, where managers frequently request reports and analytics from Oracle's PeopleSoft applications and related systems.
"ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems were not designed for analytics and flexibility. As a result, IT involvement is usually required to create new reports and queries, which means that our PeopleSoft development and support teams are taken off other initiatives to field these requests," he says. "In many cases, large data volumes were ported into Microsoft Excel for 'spreadsheet gymnastics.' Now there's a faster, better, and more cost-effective solution for a lot of people."
Improving Flexibility, Reducing Complexity
To improve flexibility and minimize these maverick "spread-marts," Cox decided to use Hyperion Web Analysis (now part of Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition) in conjunction with Hyperion Essbase and a data warehouse that compiles data from PeopleSoft and related systems. Now Cox Enterprises has one central reliable source for populating numerous dashboards and queries, enabling the BI team to reduce the number of data feeds to production source systems for customers.
Cox also uses automation to reconcile data among the PeopleSoft applications, the data warehouse, and several Hyperion Essbase cubes on a daily basis, which enables people to create meaningful reports from high-quality data. An important component in the Oracle BI foundation, Hyperion Essbase is an online analytical processing (OLAP) server with an advanced calculation engine. For Cox, it provides an environment for rapidly developing custom analytic and enterprise performance management applications.
"Nontechnical users can generate queries without having to rely on the development team," says Taft. "Business users can create regular or ad hoc reports just by dragging data elements from the fact and dimension tables in our published data model. This frees these users from having to know SQL to generate complex reports, reversing the typical 80/20 rule about BI. Now, our users are spending more time consuming useful information and less time trying to prepare it."
So far, the BI team has rolled out the BI solution to 150 users in HR, finance, and payroll—often reducing the time needed to create and run new reports from many days to less than one hour.
"HR personnel that used to spend two to three weeks producing EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] reports can create these same reports in 10 to 20 minutes," Taft says. "Going forward, information like this and more will be even more accessible by dashboard and portal-like frameworks."
In a different area, the Cox Enterprises BI team created a BI application called Orion that analyzes bookings data from 80 radio stations in 17 markets. In addition to providing a central repository for this data, the application enables executives to monitor and forecast performance of individual markets using near-real-time dashboards.
Previously this information was entered and consolidated manually on a weekly basis. To automate this important revenue management process, Cox designed a corporate data mart of key dimensions and facts and then loaded the information into Hyperion Essbase cubes. The team used Hyperion Essbase to deliver results to executives via PDF files; they can also view interactive reports to compare prior year actuals, budget, and most-recent bookings.
"It used to take a controller in each of the 17 markets about an hour per week to run reports and manually enter data into the data collection system," Taft says. "After that, corporate employees spent about five hours per week consolidating the data for corporate reporting." The new system automates the entire process and securely delivers the reports via PDFs in Microsoft Outlook. Taft projects the savings at US$200,000 per year, because executives use the information to spot areas that need attention and opportunities for profitability in Cox Radio operating markets.
Taft credits a lot of progress in BI to great people and solid executive sponsorship. He is starting to see a day when BI and analytics become more ingrained into Cox companies and help Cox create competitive advantages. He thinks that true EPM and "information democracy" are becoming more achievable, a potential direction he describes as his "über-vision" for the organization.
BI at the Tipping Point
This kind of long-range strategic thinking is increasingly important to many organizations. Even more important is the ability to tie performance and planning with strategy. Hyperion Planning - System 9 is one of the Hyperion performance management applications, a modular suite of integrated applications that link strategy to planning and execution. Oracle's Kopcke says the suite supports the entire management cycle of EPM, which includes goal-setting, modeling, planning, monitoring, analysis, and reporting.
Oracle EPM software aims to help customers define management processes such as plan-to-perform, record-to-report, and investigate-to-invest. "These are the key management processes that will take organizations to the next level with BI," Kopcke says.
John Hagerty, vice president and research fellow at AMR Research, thinks that with the rise of EPM and the lure of the operational excellence it promises, BI technology has reached a tipping point: it has become a strategic asset that most organizations can't live without.
"BI is now part of how decisions get made," he says. "It's moving from a disjointed combination of tools and technologies to a cohesive environment that helps managers paint a picture of what's going on in the business. Many companies have told us that by 2010, performance management software will be one of the most strategic investments that they can make."
When properly deployed, Hagerty says, BI provides visibility to business users in places where they couldn't see clearly before. "It helps these users take a step back and develop a knowledgeable perspective on a business function or domain. This is what organizations really value. They want to use BI to acquire real knowledge about the inner workings of their organizations."
BI Goes to School
It's not just commercial ventures that are looking for this type of knowledgeable perspective. Today's colleges and universities must respond to challenging social and economic trends ranging from complex operational issues and competition to declining financial support, escalating costs, and increasing demand for student loans. Challenges such as these have brought the need for responsible decision-making to the forefront of administrators' concerns.
Florida State University, an undergraduate, graduate, and research university with more than 40,000 students, found that it needed to deliver timely, accurate reports that put the right information into the hands of decision-makers. Florida State uses Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition to leverage data stored in its PeopleSoft Enterprise Financial Management, PeopleSoft Enterprise Human Capital Management, and PeopleSoft Enterprise Grants Management applications, and the university is in the process of extending a self-service reporting and analytic environment to end users within individual departments.
"We chose PeopleSoft Enterprise applications for their robust reporting capabilities as well as their high-quality grants management tools," says Michael Barrett, vice president for ERP at Florida State University. "Now we are supplying users with advanced insight so they can make more-informed financial decisions, improve contract and grant tracking, and get a better picture of our workforce assignments and trends."
Oracle's acquisition of PeopleSoft formed a good strategic fit for the university. Oracle has integrated Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition with the PeopleSoft environment by establishing Oracle Fusion Analytics as the middleware layer between the two. Barrett says this simplified the task of developing metadata and transformation logic so they could create reports quickly. His organization also uses Oracle Business Intelligence Publisher for core financial statements and official published documents. This new publishing system has provided extensive capabilities with limited customization, and users are finding it easy and efficient.
Now that the core reports and analytics are in place, the university plans to create dashboards to deliver information to casual users, "essentially putting them on a PeopleSoft portal and providing relevant information within a graph or chart," he says. The overriding goal is to push reporting out to each department by teaching the faculty and staff how to use the data provided by IT. Once the dashboards are implemented and training is completed, the expected user count could reach 6,000.
"By reducing the time it takes to produce and distribute reports, we can deliver what users want, when they want it, instead of always falling behind the demand curve," Barrett says.
BI and Data Warehousing
For some companies, the sheer volume of data they gather and store can mean that delivering what users want, when they want it is almost impossible to achieve. If you can't find it, critical data can forever go unexamined.
That's where data warehousing enters the picture.
R.L. Polk & Co. is a market-research company that has provided analytical and statistical data services to the automotive industry since 1922. R.L. Polk collects and compiles data from more than 240 sources, including state agencies, automotive manufacturers, financing companies, and a variety of providers of lifestyle and demographic data. It all adds up to nearly 40 terabytes of Oracle data.
One of R.L. Polk's primary data warehouses maintains data on 500 million vehicles and 250 million households. A wide variety of the company's customers depend on this information, including automotive and commercial vehicle manufacturers and dealers; automotive aftermarket companies; insurance, finance, and media companies; and advertising and government agencies.
"Many of our databases have billions of rows of data and several terabytes of information, all of which is stored, managed, and analyzed using Oracle software," says Douglas Miller, director of R.L. Polk's database group.
"Oracle has set a direction of innovation with its data warehouse functionality. Each release of the database brings another level of sophistication to our operation. We have been using the technology since Oracle7, and we've never been disappointed."
R.L. Polk has several BI applications to allow its customers to mine automotive data and generate reports. One of the most popular is PolkInsight, a geographic information system that lets customers explore consumer and vehicle data by geography, market segment, and dealership boundaries. Polk built PolkInsight using Oracle Discoverer, and the BI application lets customers build and schedule parameter-driven reports through a self-service reporting environment that supports about 4,000 registered users.
Miller likes the BI technology embedded in Oracle Database 10g, such as materialized views and query rewrite. "We've been able to support huge numbers of users in a very efficient way with these technologies," he says.
Each customer segments the automotive market differently, so R.L. Polk has devised virtual private databases that enable them to "view information through the lens of their own set of dimension tables." Previously, Miller and his team built anywhere from 50 to 100 Oracle materialized views to support these private databases and the associated queries. Today, working closely with Oracle, they are using Oracle OLAP— an option to Oracle Database 11g Enterprise Edition—to develop a proof of concept that replaces hundreds of materialized views with just a handful of OLAP cube materialized views.
"This is a big development for us because we no longer have to try to anticipate every possible way our customers might want to view each set of dimensions," Miller says. "Each OLAP cube calculates every possible combination. It's innovative thinking, and it's really a leap forward because it's transparent to our BI applications."
R.L. Polk is gradually supplementing its Oracle Discoverer environment with new capabilities from Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition. "Oracle is becoming the powerhouse in the BI tool space," concludes Miller, "which helps us stay on an upward path as a BI innovator. At every turn and with every release, Oracle delivers something that helps us further our business."
David Baum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance business writer based in Santa Barbara, California.