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Data integration, not reporting, key to ERP business intelligence project

Jeff Kelly, News Editor

Terry Kin doesn’t mince words when describing his company’s history with business intelligence (BI) reporting.

“Our struggle with reporting has been long and painful,” said Kin, vice president of

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information services at Hercules Tire & Rubber.

The Findlay, Ohio-based company operates in 92 countries, manufacturing and selling replacement tires to wholesalers and auto parts dealers. It has a complex international supply chain, which it manages with an aging but effective ERP system called Activant Eclipse.

While Eclipse has served the company well in most cases, it is seriously lacking in the BI department, Kin said. Its reporting capabilities are primitive, lacking the ability to customize reports to the level of detail Hercules sales execs demand.

As a result, until recently, each evening a team of five IT workers ran mountains of reports against the Eclipse ERP system. Each morning, between 40 and 50 of those reports landed on the desks of each sales manager. From there, it was up to the managers to dig through the glut of information to find what was most important and relevant to them on that given day.

Much of the work was manual. Reviewing data from across Hercules’ three product lines, for example, required pulling data out of the various reports and into Excel. It was a clunky, time-consuming, and often frustrating daily ritual.

“We grew tired of throwing tons of data at our people,” he added. “Just the manpower we were using to get that together grew too large.”

Data integration key to ERP reporting

Reporting is sometimes a challenge with ERP systems, most of which were not optimized for reporting and analytics when they were originally developed.

“It’s designed for speed, but not for reporting,” Kin said of Eclipse, but he could have been referring to just about any ERP system on the market, especially those that have been around for years.

By 2009, Kin decided it was time to make the investment in third-party BI reporting and dashboarding technology to complement, if not outright replace, Eclipse’s less-than-stellar reporting capabilities.

He evaluated a number of BI vendors’ tools, but the overriding factor was not reporting capability but data integration. Specifically, Kin needed to find the platform with the best ability to integrate data from Hercules’ UniVerse database, which underlies its Eclipse ERP system.

“[UniVerse] is not a common database,” he said, and most BI vendors don’t have prebuilt data connectors for it as they do for other, more popular ERP databases. “Many vendors said they could hit [the database],” he said, “but they wanted us to export files out [in various forms].”

That wouldn’t do. While he initially planned to integrate ERP data into the new reporting and dashboarding platform on a daily basis, Kin had ambitions of one day moving to real-time data analytics. That would just not be possible if he first had to export the data in various file formats to the BI vendor.

In the end, only one BI vendor, Information Builders, proved it had the data integration technology capable of supporting the UniVerse database.

“From the reporting side, they’re strong, but there are others that are equally strong,” Kin said of Information Builders. But during the proof of concept, he said, Information Builders demonstrated how it was able to connect its BI platform, called WebFOCUS, and the UniVerse database.

When necessary, the vendor made changes to its platform to make the job more efficient. Kin appreciated the extra effort.

“A lot of people couldn’t come in and do that,” he said.

Winning business through its data integration capabilities is nothing new for Information Builders. The vendor’s iWay data integration software has been recognized by analysts and end users as giving it an edge in operational BI scenarios.

According to analyst firm Gartner, which named Information Builders a leader in its 2010 BI Magic Quadrant report, “Information Builders is chosen more often than any other vendor for its data access and integration capabilities.”

Noting that WebFOCUS is fully integrated with iWay’s data integration platform, the report continued, Information Builders is “better suited than most other BI platforms for organizations without a data warehouse and for operational reporting.”

Push BI vendors to prove themselves

Since deploying WebFOCUS this summer, Hercules has significantly reduced the amount of effort required to produce ERP-based sales reports, Kin said. Producing a monthly sales report that covered Hercules’ multiple product lines, for example, used to take half a day of manual effort. It now runs automatically in WebFOCUS.

End users also have the ability to dig into reports and refresh the data on their own. The WebFOCUS deployment is Web-based, meaning users can access it from whichever machine they happen to be using and from any of the 92 countries in which Hercules operates.

Once Kin’s team designs a report with the WebFOCUS design tool, end users can even use it as a template to create new reports of their choosing, he said.

That doesn’t mean there were no hiccups in the deployment. For one, the WebFOCUS platform has so many features that Kin and his team were initially overwhelmed.

“The learning curve was larger than I thought it would be,” Kin said. “It just comes down to [the fact that] there are so many options.”

In addition to deploying daily and monthly sales reports, for example, Kin also attempted to take advantage of Information Builders’ real-time dashboarding capabilities during the initial implantation. He and his team realized, however, that they had become side-tracked.

“That’s where we got bogged down,” he said.

Kin soon refocused his efforts, concentrating on deploying the reporting capabilities, where Hercules would get “the biggest bang for its buck,” during the initial rollout. He still plans to explore real-time dashboards to monitor budget numbers and inventory levels, but not right away.

He recommends that others just starting out with a BI deployment do the same. “You want to stay with a real simple design wherever you can,” he said.

Kin also urges companies that are evaluating BI tools to really put the pressure on the vendors, as he did when he asked Information Builders to prove it could connect to the UniVerse database during the proof of concept.

In short, be aggressive with vendors, Kin said. “Ask for the world … and see what happens.”