luni, 3 septembrie 2007

IT opens warehouses to external users

Corporate Express US Inc. this fall hopes to enable 1,000 of its largest customers to run reports and analyze purchasing patterns using data stored in the office supply company’s internal data warehouse.

The company is one of many that have turned to a variety of technologies over the past couple of years to let external users securely access selected corporate data.

IT executives say such projects can improve customer service, streamline supply chains and let offsite employees access internal business intelligence (BI) applications.

Matt Schwartz, director of business analysis at Corporate Express, said the company moved quickly early this year to select a technology that can provide its top customers with access to purchasing data after its hand was forced by similar efforts at key rivals Office Depot Inc. and Staples Inc.
Customers started “coming to us and saying, ‘We want this. Your competitors are offering it, [and] for me to stay loyal to you, you need to offer this,’” he said.

The Broomfield, Colo.-based company decided earlier this year to use a data warehouse appliance that would allow 10,000 users at 1,000 customers to keep track of their purchases, Schwartz said.

Data warehouse appliances bundle high-performance hardware, software and storage devices together in a device that is preconfigured to run a specific task, such as strategic analysis.

Corporate Express, which now uses an Oracle 10g-based enterprise data warehouse, plans to use Netezza Corp.’s Performance Server appliance to power a new data mart that will let customers run Web-based queries about their purchasing history, Schwartz said.

The company will continue to use the Oracle Corp. database internally as the company’s enterprise data warehouse, he noted.

The appliance from Framingham, Mass.-based Netezza will provide procurement information to customers through dashboards and standard reports, and by drilling down to transaction-level data, he said.

Schwartz said the company turned to the appliance technology for its ease of use features and performance capabilities.

“With our Oracle platform, the performance across thousands of customer wasn’t sufficient for sub-10-second response times,” he said.

Sales personnel at Corporate Express. which also uses business intelligence software from MicroStrategy Inc., are testing the Netezza appliance this summer. The software from MicroStrategy, in McLean, Va., authenticates the users and encrypts all the data to be presented outside the company’s firewall, he added.

The company hasn’t encountered any challenges yet in the testing process, he said.

The Hillman Group, a Cincinnati-based manufacturer and supplier of hardware like nuts, bolts and key engraving systems, took a different approach to providing salespeople working outside of the office with access to internal systems, said CIO Jim Honerkamp.

About two years ago the company created a so-called virtual data warehouse to let 800 remote employees access internal BI applications over the Web, he said.

Instead of moving data from transactional systems to a database for analysis, Hillman uses adapters from Information Builders Inc. subsidiary iWay Software to get direct access to transactional systems without having to physically integrate underlying data, he said.

Honerkamp said the virtual data warehouse has allowed the company to avoid having to build a multi-million dollar physical data warehouse for the external users.

Hillman uses the WebFocus BI software from New York City-based Information Builders to let users view sales reports and drill down into BI reports overlaid with GIS data, Honerkamp said.

“We’ll use this technology to map out the most efficient route for a sales rep to follow on a daily basis,” he said.

“We’re trying to provide to them with a driving sequence that minimizes the miles …fuel costs and other expenses,” he said. “We also use this to try to optimize the assignment of territories.”

The company also has married BI with GIS maps to optimize which distribution center ships products to customers to ensure the most cost effective route is used, he noted.

Canvas Systems, which sells used and refurbished IT equipment to businesses, a year ago built a portal to give customers that provide it products on consignment an “open-kimono view into our business,” said Steve Hyser, the company’s IT lifecycle manager.

Norcross, Ga.-based Canvas moves data from its transactional systems to a Microsoft SQL Server database that then allows those customers to log into the portal – which is updated every 10 to 15 minutes - to track their IT equipment as it is refurbished and made available for sale.

“They can see each individual item what we intend to sell it for,” Hyser said. “They can see what their proceeds are. They basically have a soup to nuts tracking mechanism.”

As a result, he added, there are no surprises, and thus no time-consuming calls from customers questioning a bill or looking to find out where an item is in the sales pipeline.

Colin White, president of BI Research in Ashland, Ore., noted that many companies that retrenched to focus on internal enterprise data access following the dot com bust now are beginning to eye making data available outside the firewall again.

“If I’m a funds investor buying funds and I can see information about my funds and how well they’re doing …that makes me a happier customer,” White noted.

“Companies get improved customer satisfaction and retention. They also [reduce] the number of calls coming into their call center,” he said.

The informatics division of Premier Inc. a San Diego-based health care alliance owned by 200 hospitals, this spring ousted the system that provided data analysis to 400 hospitals, said Chris Stewart, senior architect in the informatics division.

The division replaced its IBM Red Brick Warehouse SQL-based relational database with a Netezza data warehouse appliance for the core analysis it offers to the hospitals, he said.

The older system would run the required reports for the hospitals, but it could not inform users whether the query would take several hours or several minutes, he said. “[Using the appliance], you can get that analysis back to the customers in a much more predictable fashion,” Stewart added.

The new system speeds the analysis and provides an estimated completion time to queries by hospital administrators, such as like how their facility’s treatment of elderly patients with pneumonia compares to other hospitals, Stewart said.

The company first installed a Netezza warehouse appliance in 2003 to analyze selected pharmacy data, he said. It moved to broadly expand its use this year after gaining confidence in its functionality and performance, Stewart added.

Strong performance is especially important to Premier because the company places very strong security demands on the 3 TB data warehouse, Stewart said.

For example, he said, Premier added rules to the analysis process to verify whether each component of a query has data from enough hospitals so that the identity of the facility making the query isn’t obvious.

This verification takes place while the query is running, thus significantly increasing the load on the database, he added.

Study shows IT employees need help with handling stress

A Canadian graduate school study suggests companies should start investing in IT-specific employee assistance programs and offer more peer support for technology professionals who are struggling to manage their stress levels.

The study, "Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals," also recommended companies look for optimism as a key personality trait when recruiting for IT roles that demand intensive and constant technical skill updating. The results of the study, which was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, will be published in a human resources management journal later this year.

In the meantime, an overview is available.

Nicole Haggerty, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business who worked on the study, said the research did not involve a large survey sample but instead focused on in-depth interviews with 14 people, which she said resulted in more than 100 pages of transcripts. Subjects were probed on the kind of workload they had, the amount of learning on the fly they had to do and the coping mechanisms they used to avoid frustration or burnout.

"We spent a lot of time with these people," she said.

The researchers found the most successful IT professionals used a combination of problem- and emotion-focused coping strategies. An example of the former would be taking direct action through research to resolve an issue, while emotion-based coping relied on seeking distraction, relaxation or social support. Not surprisingly, emotion-focused coping can be tougher for IT people, Haggerty said.

"Technical people are pretty good at working with their peers. There are inherent sympathies -- everybody commiserates," she said. "It's seeking social support outside of that group [that's difficult]."

Haggerty said she hopes to see more firms offering programs or retreats that would give IT managers more resources to deal with their stress. This happens within other areas of a business, she said, including marketing and finance departments.

"When you're trained from a technical perspective, there isn't HR 101. There's database management 101," she said.

The project was originally started by Hsing-Yi (Phoebe) Tsai, a Ph.D. student who had worked in IT at a vocational school for a year. She said her background is in the management of information systems, and the majority of her ex-classmates are still in the field. She originally started looking at the notion of IT careers becoming obsolete in 2002, but changed direction to look at stress-related issues.

"In some way I was often surrounded by IT folks in my previous life [before joining the Ph.D. program]. I guess that's one reason that I am personally interested in this particular occupational group," she said. "Writing something about them is one way for me to say that I care about them."

Although all enterprise executives could say they're stressed out occasionally, Haggerty said IT professionals are in a somewhat unique position.

"In other fields, you build up skills so that they become a capital asset that increases in value. In technology, the learning curve can be competence-destroying," she said. "Instead of building up their skills, they're trying to maintain them. That increases the amount of stress they have. And the amount of stress they have comes from outside the firm."

The study noted that heavy reliance on emotion-focused coping strategies suggests an assessment of low changeability of the situation. In other words, the study said, people are more likely to use these strategies when they believe that nothing constructive can be done about the stressor and that the problem is something that they must endure.