Firms face barriers in push for data analysis

With the economic slowdown, businesses are especially hard-pressed to find new ways to exploit their sales, marketing and human...

With the economic slowdown, businesses are especially hard-pressed to find new ways to exploit their sales, marketing and human resources data.

Barriers such as network infrastructure limitations, a lack of training and cultural resistance prevent many from broadly rolling out analysis software that can help, according to users at Hyperion Solutions' conference last week.

"I think [data management software] can help businesses use their data to make better decisions," said Stephen Banach, senior product manager for financial information systems at Sears, Roebuck. "And it's more crucial than ever, now that the economy is goofy."

Sears uses online analytical processing (OLAP) applications to run complex queries, create different scenarios and detect patterns in sales and financial data. For example, the retailer relies on Hyperion's Essbase OLAP product in its central office to manipulate financial data about store profitability and costs based on data cubes. The system takes into account geography, lines of business, store size and other factors, said Banach.

Sears wants to give store managers remote access to Essbase but doesn't have a large enough Web network, he explained. Another problem is that store managers may prefer to remain on the store floor rather than behind a computer screen. Beyond that, "you're limited only by your imagination," Banach said.

Blockbuster is considering half a dozen Essbase projects that could save it as much as US$30m in operational costs during the next several years, said Gary Golden, senior vice president and corporate controller at the video rental chain.

Blockbuster currently uses Essbase to extract budgeting and planning data from its homegrown enterprise system and analyse how the weather or given movie titles affect sales in its stores. It also uses the software to help in planning how to exploit peak rental times.

Golden is considering rolling the system out to store managers, but the company doesn't have a network that's widespread enough to reach them, and there are security issues that would need to be resolved first, he said. The company may also expand Essbase to areas such as merchandise planning, he added.

Managing all the data from customers can be a "massive problem," said Tracey Schmidt, chief financial officer at Federal Express subsidiary FedEx Express. The delivery firm uses Essbase for tasks such as reviewing budgets and analysing customer profitability.

"We're looking at pickup density," said Schmidt. "We have the ability to integrate cost data with operational metrics and slice and dice it by geography and customer."

Using Essbase for the past two years, FedEx has been able to cut the number of people required to conduct these types of analyses by 10%.

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