SAS A2010 conference: Data explosion teases information away from analysts

Data analytics used to be a job for data miners, statisticians and forecasters who made information accessible to all business users. Now data analytics specialist SAS's strategy aims to bring analytics to the masses.

Data analytics used to be a job for data miners, statisticians and forecasters who made information accessible to all business users. Now data analytics specialist SAS's strategy aims to bring analytics to the masses.

With an explosion in data over the past five years, SAS predicts enterprises will increasingly need to provide non-analytical business users with access to data insight to allow for informed decision-making.

"Customers across all industry sectors are seeing the need for data insight at enterprise-wide level," says Radhika Kulkarni, vice president for advanced analytics R&D at SAS US. "We're hearing the same thing: 'We've got analysts but we want to make it more easily accessible to the end-user'."

Accessible information

SAS has launched a Rapid Predictive Modeller (RPM) service to allow non-analytical business users to generate a set of reporting elements. The SAS RPM task is part of the latest release of SAS Enterprise Miner. An SAS add-in for Microsoft Excel is included with the 6.2 release, allowing business analysts to use SAS RPM without an additional charge.

Ultimately, Kulkarni believes data insight should be accessible for everyone in an enterprise. "Getting insight from data should not be the right of just analytical folks," she says.

"A big push would be to create user interfaces that are targeted for specific business problems in an easy-to-access form. All the magic that needs to happen is done in the back-end and they don't need to know the details," adds Kulkarni.

Information can then be accessed via familiar platforms. SAS uses Microsoft Excel. Kulkarni says, "If you can provide insight in a framework or platform that users are most comfortable with, and provide it in an easy-to-use fashion, then there will be greater adoption of the methods."

Reducing costs

Simon Holloway, analyst at Bloor Research, agrees pressure has increased for business intelligence providers to make information available across organisations, thanks to flattened management structures, which in turn mean employees are making more decisions enterprise-wide.

While traditional entry points for large data warehouses are often £320,000-plus, Holloway believes giving access to information through Microsoft Excel will reduce costs for organisations.

With the majority of BI tools being able to take an Excel front-end, organisations are likely to have enough Microsoft licences to support them. Plus, greater competition between software suppliers and Microsoft's reporting capabilities for a mid-market stronghold will be to the buyer's advantage.

"Buyer beware as always. But now the buyer is in the driving seat, there are deals to be had," says Holloway.

Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, also believes competition will drive BI costs down. "We should expect to see prices come down on these systems across the board, making the systems more attainable for even more types of uses and users," she says.

BI issues

However, how to draw information from a wealth of data remains a problem. "There are so many ways to slice and dice the data. We're looking at optimal ways to aggregate data for efficiency and predictive power and that is a scientific problem that will take place for quite some time," adds Wayne Thompson, product manager for SAS data mining.

Making BI tools more accessible is a positive move but only one piece of the puzzle. "The biggest costs in BI are in getting underlying data into a respectable shape in terms of consistency and quality. Even if [BI tools are] perfect, this is only taking 20% of the problem and making it a bit better," says Andy Hayler, CEO of analyst firm the Information Difference.

Analytics has moved from research into business operations, which means it could be become a key software tool for staff across the business. If more users are given access to information, they will require data analysis tools to help them draw meaningful information from the explosion of data available to them. However, the data quality issues should be redressed before analytics is widely deployed.

Case study: Wolters Kluwer ups sales by making information accessible to employees

Business publisher and advisory service Wolters Kluwer UK has increased customer retention by 9% and increased average orders from £2,500 to £4,000 by providing employees with access to customer information for marketing campaigns.

Wolters Kluwer UK provides publications, information and consulting services to help businesses and professionals comply with changing laws. Based on SAS's Enterprise Intelligence Platform, Wolters Kluwer consolidated data sources, including legacy databases and list sources, into a single database. This is used within the marketing department by a range of employees for automated marketing campaigns and to monitor campaign success.

Mike Turner, head of management information system at Wolters Kluwer, says the company needed a system to deliver customer intelligence for marketing campaigns but also to deliver high levels of data quality to avoid legal issues, moving away from a product-focused model.

"With so much 'free to air' information available, especially via the internet, we had to switch from this [product-focused] approach to understanding then addressing customer needs," Turner says.

He attributes improved customer retention and sales to employees' ability to gain real-time information. "We can be more responsive in how we run campaigns, using data extracted in a few days rather than a month before a campaign," says Turner.

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