Counting beans

Contax and California Garden - two very different companies - one common goal: to use business intelligence tools to support world-class business operations. Colin Edwards finds out how they are going about it.

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By  Colin Edwards Published  April 2, 2006

|~|beans200.jpg|~|Cryer and El Taher want BI to help support their world class aspirations.|~|Six months ago both Contax, a pan Gulf professional strategic services provider, and Gulf Food Industries California Garden (GFI), the leading regional supplier of canned beans, decided they had to get a better handle on the information in their respective organisations to better support their world class aspirations.

That is the goal, but underlying both their deployments of business intelligence (BI) solutions is the realisation that whatever they implement has to deliver a readily identifiable return on investment.

They also realise that benefits are not going to come overnight and that it is a step-by-step process. It could take as long as 18 months before they are able to fully leverage all the functionality of the Cognos 8 BI systems implemented and make the applications pervasive throughout their organisations.

"Our vision is about turning data into business advantage. We have a lot of data, but do we deliver business benefit? We have internal systems that we have to make more accessible," says Gerry Cryer, director of infrastructure at Contax, a services company in the Gulf for 20 years, providing business development and market intelligence services.

"What we are trying to do is make access to our data as easy as possible for our users. We are on this journey of implementing a full suite of Cognos programs and products. It is a journey that is going to take us 18 months to get all the value out of every bit of data we have lying around our databases," he adds.

GFI, part of the Kuwait Food Company group, processes 400,000 cans of food a day, most of them beans, and has a factory in Jebel Ali in Dubai. It is using its BI system initially to provide senior management with query reporting analysis and dashboarding tools, but plans to give users across the organisation access to the BI tools they need to improve performance across the business. It also plans to add budgeting and planning and scorecarding modules by the end of the year, once initial deployments are bedded down.

Previously GFI used the Business Objects XI business intelligence solution, which also provides query reporting analysis tools, but IT manager Alaa El Taher says user licence differences made Cognos a more attractive option.
"The dashboarding tool is very useful for us because the management doesn't just want to see numbers, they want to see graphs - it helps them to make quicker decisions,” says El Taher.

"In the beginning, I developed the reports for the users, but now we are giving this tool to the people who need direct access to the information. They can design reports to meet their own needs. This is one of the strong features of Cognos."

Over the last six months El Taher has been able to evaluate the effectiveness of dashboarding. "It's giving us a good indication of how we or our suppliers are performing and where there might be problems. You can analyse results immediately, spot, for example, best-selling items and which one gives the most profit. You can then make a decision based on this information very quickly. With a normal report you cannot make this sort of quick analysis."
The fact that the Cognos solution provides web access to information is also a major benefit. This is particularly useful for travelling executives and for those working in other offices outside Dubai, he says.

"Our company is part of a bigger company and we have different offices all over the world, so it's very important for people to be able to access data such as sales figures from wherever they are."

Contax, which has offices in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is using BI as a strategic tool to drive its business growth in the region.

"We're growing and changing ourselves and what we are trying to do in the infrastructure is support our services. Our objective is to become world class. This doesn't mean spending more money. It means being more efficient and effective in what we do," says Cryer.
Contax wants to ensure its 70-plus staff have the capabilities to support growth, so there is a real focus on reporting on people. "It's not just reporting on information, but reporting to drive the strategy and drive the capabilities we have put in place," he adds.

"You don't want to get to the end of the year and find someone's only performed on five out of seven targets because he didn't have the full picture or information. We're driving people the whole time. This is why competency assessment is so important to us. If everyone achieves target, we will meet our strategy and we won't be a 70-man organisation, but a 140 or 210-man company. That's the sort of growth we are looking at," he says.

According to Oneil Menezes, group IT manager at Contax, the company needs a solution that will make financial and performance data transparent to management and executives within a collaborative environment, where information can be easily shared and decisions made quickly and with greater confidence.

"Cognos Planning gives us the ability to analyse performance trends across each area and develop accurate forecasts and projections helping us to maintain our leadership role in providing competitive professional services to the market," adds Menezes.

Having implemented planning and budgeting initially, the company is now rolling out a portal facility, which, says Cryer, is going to unify access to all the company's operational systems.

"We're also talking to Cognos about using the portal to drive our external database subscription service so our customers can have more analysis capabilities when they access our contracts database."

Not that Cognos is meeting all its needs. Having implemented performance management analysis tools for its round of budgeting at the end of last year, Cryer says he intends to re-write the model.

"As we are learning and our business is growing, we're going to re-write the application to provide us with even more benefit. The work we did before Christmas really speeded up our ability to understand our business and develop new strategies. We will be moving towards things that will help us drive down accountability into the business," says Cryer.

"For an organisation of our size Cognos might be thought to be too much and only for the big boys, but the product is world class and we want to be world class."||**||

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