However sophisticated business intelligence is - gathering and analysing reams of useful data - there will be no return on investment unless data can be delivered to those who need it in a manner that is timely, targeted and cost-effective.
At investment management company Deutsche Asset Management, information delivery is not only critical, it is a massive task. "We produce about 2,000 reports a month," says Steve Needham, vice-president of client reporting.
The reports tell fund managers and their clients what has been happening to clients' money since they invested it - it used to take 40 systems to produce them. "It was very manual with a lot of bespoke reports," says Needham. "It was quite an overhead."
Each month's worth of reports required 13 weeks of labour from 140 people. To make matters worse, there was a huge range of variability across the reports. "We had 300 types of pages that could go in, such as transaction summaries or detailed transactions," he says.
Moreover, the reports had to be printed out, in colour, and then bound, to make them of a quality that could be presented to clients. "Colour printing costs 26p a page," points out Needham, "and each report was about 80 pages."
All that totted up to a hefty bill, both in terms of system support, staff time and printing costs. "We knew we had to make changes," says Needham.
To get the company's information delivery under control a handful of critical factors were identified. It had to be performed by a single system; support straight through processing from a variety of data feeds; reduce the manual effort involved by investment staff; significantly reduce the wide variability of the reports; and it had to be delivered far more rapidly and cost-effectively than by paper.
"We drew up a strategy two years ago, and decided to do three projects to tackle the three kinds of reports - accounts reports, investment reports and meetings papers," says Needham.
The projects would all use specialist information delivery software from Actuate, which would provide a single platform to extract the information which fund managers needed to report to clients from a variety of corporate data sources across the environment.
It would then create secure, individually formatted reports, with personalised content, on the scale required for the company, and deliver them straight into a Web environment for viewing by authorised personnel at Deutsche Asset Management or its clients.
Although, of course, every IT application has to meet the needs of end-users, when it comes to information delivery the role of users is doubly critical. Information must be delivered to them in a way that primarily meets their needs, not the preferences of the IT department. Moreover, because Needham had to satisfy a community of disparate end-users it was essential for a senior user to have overall decision-making power on priorities.
Standardisation was just such an issue, where strong top-down governance was essential.
The 300 different types of pages were whittled down to 75. "We had a strong project director - from the business side - who convinced business that it had to get down to a common set of pages," says Needham.
The company also capitalised on the opportunity to do a spot of process re-engineering. Reporting was centralised, instead of being done by each separate fund team, and now needs only 46 staff, not 140.
"It has transformed the job of client-reporting, it has all been automated. We can now run off thousands of reports overnight, ready for the fund controllers to quality check in the morning," says Needham.
Then the reports can be posted straight on to the corporate intranet and on to a secure extranet where clients can view their individual reports. The investment reports project, which is now starting user acceptance testing, had to accommodate user-definable content, which worked against the goal of standardisation. The compromise was to adopt pre-agreed templates and common presentation.
"There is a standard look and feel which helps to create a corporate identity, and there are appropriate image objects such as graphs and tables which users can pick up, align to the data source they need, then drag and drop into place in the report," says Needham. "Users can build their own reports."
Again, to ensure user acceptance, all the templates were first mocked up by users, and signed off by the relevant fund manager, before IT built them.
Because, inevitably, users wanted more than could be reasonably accomplished within the timeframe of the project, only core capability was delivered, leaving enhancements for later.
"It was important for the project director to timebox the project, and what wasn't critical went on the enhancement list," says Needham.
Because he had fund controllers on board the project with years of experience, "They could say x was more important than y, I couldn't," he says. The project team delivered the enhancements list about six months after the initial go-live.
The same core-then-enhance policy is being used for the investment reports project, which will go live with the company's new Performance Engine System. It will be able to monitor and benchmark critical corporate measures, such as return on funds, across the company. Then Needham can start turning off the 40 redundant systems.
In the meantime, as well as allowing a graceful bedding-in time for the investment reporting project, Needham's team is moving on to the final project of the trio, tackling meeting papers.
Because source data for these papers can come from a large variety of user and client systems, and can be in a variety of formats, the new delivery system has to support what Needham calls "anything in: report out." XML will inevitably feature.
And when the UK side is fully up and running, the next stop will be to roll the information delivery system out to Europe, and the rest of the world. "We'll migrate it to our global data hub," says Needham.
That, because the projects came in under the UK budget, will be "free".
Final link in business intelligence chain
Information delivery is increasingly being seen as the final stage of the chain of business intelligence, from data extraction through analysis and querying, and with the potential to mesh in other more complex aspects of corporate information management such as content and knowledge management.
"Information delivery is more than just reporting," says Steve Barrier of Bloor Research. "It begins with report creation and then provides the infrastructure to manage and distribute reports to a large and very diverse group of users via the Web. Individual users must be able to mould and format the information to suit their specific requirements, without having to revisit all of the data sources."
How to make business intelligence pay
- Business intelligence pays off only if users receive the information they need, in the way they need it, at the time they need it, with little effort on their part
- Disparate user communities will fight standardisation, so strong project management, led by business, is essential. IT must not be made responsible for driving standardisation. Users must control the project - and themselves
- Ensure that experienced users are seconded to the project, who are happy to be there
- To keep project delivery on time, keep strictly to core components, but win back the confidence of users by delivering enhancements after go-live
- New technology can be a two-edged sword. While getting the benefit of latest technology, "You don't want to be bleeding edge," says Needham. "You've got to be careful and bold"
- By delivering information via the Web not only are the reports instantly available and printing and client-distribution costs removed, but there is no cost penalty for increasing the number of reports. The system is highly scalable and expandable globally.