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Software // Information Management
11:49 AM
Rick Whiting
Rick Whiting

Centralized Intelligence At Work

Companies are creating business-intelligence competency centers staffed with experts who establish standards and work with employees and vendors.

Scott Norris, division manager of technology services at KeyCorp, ticks off the list of business-intelligence software used throughout the banking-services company. "We use Actuate, Cognos for multidimensional analysis, Business Objects, SAS, plus Crystal Reports, Focus, and Brio," he says, pausing for breath. "Hyperion for finance, MicroStrategy for risk management," and the list goes on.

KeyCorp's situation isn't unusual. The most common approach to business intelligence is to assemble a team of developers to build a data warehouse or data mart for a specific project, buy a reporting tool to use with it, and disassemble the team upon the project's completion. However, this reinventing-the-wheel approach to business-intelligence implementations can result in high development and support costs and incompatible business-intelligence systems throughout a company.

Some companies are taking a more strategic approach: standardizing on fewer business-intelligence tools and making them available throughout their organizations even before projects are planned. To execute these strategies, companies are creating dedicated groups--sometimes called competency centers or centers of excellence--to manage business-intelligence projects and provide technical and analytical expertise to other employees. Competency centers are usually staffed with people who have a variety of technical, business, and data-analysis expertise, and the centers become a repository of business-intelligence-related skills, best practices, and application standards.

McKesson Corp. set up a business-intelligence center of excellence six months ago. "The driver behind this is making sure we're maximizing the value of everything we're investing in," says Stephen Zander, director of business-intelligence operations and technology, enterprise solutions and services, at the drug and medical-supply company.

Meanwhile, KeyCorp is pruning back the number of business-intelligence tools it uses: It's phasing out Crystal Decisions and Brio and designating Actuate and Business Objects software as standards. And a year ago, it created the Enterprise Business Intelligence Review Committee, whose members represent data management and IT operations across the company. The group meets weekly to share best-practice ideas and address user issues. Norris' group houses a center of excellence that manages business-intelligence technology resources.

About 10% of the 2,000 largest companies in the world have some form of business-intelligence competency center, Gartner analyst Howard Dresner says. Yet approaches vary. While most are centralized in one location, a few are virtual, with staff scattered throughout a company. Some are part of the IT department--or closely tied to it--while others are more independent, serving as a bridge between IT and business-unit managers and employees.

Jim Young, Allstate Insurance Co.'s Enterprise Business Intelligence Tools Team's senior manager

Allstate's center lets the company execute on strategy, Young says
Allstate Insurance Co.'s Enterprise Business Intelligence Tools Team is responsible for setting business-intelligence-technology strategy for the company's 40,000 employees and 12,900 independent agents, says Jim Young, the team's senior manager.

Based in Allstate's Northbrook, Ill., headquarters, the center was created earlier this year by consolidating three groups built around separate business-intelligence products used in different parts of the company. The center serves as a central repository for business-intelligence expertise, providing services and training for Allstate employees, and is developing a set of standard best practices for building and using data-warehouses and business-intelligence applications.

"That way, we can execute on a common strategy," Young says. The center maintains a common business-intelligence infrastructure and manages software vendors and service providers.

Allstate's business-intelligence team of about 20 people is made up of project managers, developers, systems architects and administrators, data-quality-assurance experts, and trainers. Depending on the project, Allstate sometimes brings in outside consultants or additional employees from its business units to temporarily serve on the team.

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