When South Africa's largest distributor, Tarsus Technologies, invested in Cognos' Business Intelligence suite three years ago, its aim was to ensure the organisation could leverage its data to greater business advantage.
However, uptake was slow. A year ago, with a clearly defined BI strategy in hand, it appointed BI Planning Services (BIPS) to develop the reports it needed. With the development phase completed, the company is already benefiting with improvements to management decision-making, efficiency and productivity… and the company's bottom line.
Says Chris Wentzel, general manager: IT and Operations at Tarsus Technologies: "In our environment, change happens quickly and this can have a significant impact on our business. Supplying key decision makers with the relevant tools and information on all business aspects - be they supply, product, logistics or customer related - and being able to manage any issues timeously, can make a big difference to our bottom line.
"We implemented the Cognos BI suite approximately three years ago with the main aim to enhance basic management reporting facilities. We initially gained little quantifiable value from the system due to a number of factors.
Our biggest challenge was to get the BI concept adopted in the workplace. It was not until interest was sparked from within the business that the functionality within the solution began to be exploited to our advantage."
This was further driven when two key senior management executives requested management reports that would give them a realtime overview of sales and operations. They wanted a reliable and flexible system that could deliver and began defining the Cognos reports they needed.
BIPS was appointed to upgrade the Cognos solution to the latest iteration, Cognos 8.2, and build the cubes necessary to deliver the requested reports.
Explains Corneil Lubbe, director at BIPS: "Tarsus' daily transactions, financials and operations are managed by a locally developed ERP solution.
Data from this system was needed to build data marts for the sales and marketing, stock and logistics, and finance and management reports Tarsus needed."
The validity and timeousness of the data was critical, which meant the data warehouse needed to be updated every hour. Says Lubbe: "Despite the 25-40% performance increase that the Cognos 8.2 upgrade would provide, the hourly updates would put a strain on the server. Therefore optimisation of the database also became essential."
The data from the ERP system needed to be put into the right format for Cognos reporting. This was achieved by automating data transformation via SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS), a data integration platform. The Cognos cubes, which are essentially multidimensional reporting structures, were then built based on specifications from business.
Operational reports, management reports and dashboards were required. The operational reports had a narrow scope but dealt with a lot of data, the management reports called for more summarised and aggregated data, and the dashboards for Exco, in particular for the CFO, had to deliver daily comparative figures and provide for some forecasting against month-end targets.
Notes Wentzel: "We lacked the internal expertise to get the reports to the standards we needed and had to learn as we went along. As the necessary functionality was not contained in our ERP system, we built a lot of new functionality into the Cognos system. For example, in addition to management reports we needed productivity tools. Our sales commission structure in particular is very complex and automating these calculations would save a considerable amount of time and improve accuracy."
Adds Lubbe: "The sales and marketing reports thus include not only near realtime information on how sales are measuring up to various targets, but enable the calculation of commissions. The stock and logistics reports contain information on what is available and what is on order, smoothing and optimising supply and delivery.
"We started with the sales and marketing reports, doing data extraction, transformation and loading, ensuring the validity of the data and building the reports. This formula was then followed for the stock and logistics reports and the financial and management reports. Dashboards were built in parallel with these developments."
Tarsus' business is sales driven. It has huge daily targets and numerous channels (retail and reseller) that it must serve. Since the new reports are tailored to allow staff to track their progress throughout the day, there has been quite an upswing in interest in using the BI system.
With these reports they can immediately identify any bottlenecks that will have an impact on sales, be they shipment, in-house or customer related.
With the architecture now in place, Tarsus has laid the foundation to fully exploit its data. As its needs change, data can be amended to deliver the reports and dashboards it needs, when it needs them.
Says Wentzel: "With a more flexible management information system, we have access to information faster and at a greater level of detail than ever before. Benefits we are already seeing include greater productivity and faster turnaround times on complex reporting. There are also considerable advantages in terms of understanding our client profiles and needs.
"This is an ongoing initiative that will expand beyond executive and management levels to the entire organisation. With the initial phases of the project completed, we are now heading toward implementation and rollout to other business divisions."