BUSINESS INTELLIGENCE SOLUTIONS — HOW TO GAUGE SUCCESS
Sound business decision making requires having access to the best available information in a timely fashion and digestible format. A fully implemented and properly used computer management system (be it MIS, ERP or CRM) fulfills the data gathering requirement, but traditional reporting functions can be too much, too late.
Lengthy and dense hardcopy reports generated up to a month after the fact don't make the most effective tools for managing day-to-day operations. Managers--actually, all plant personnel--can benefit from having access to information they can act on in the moment.
Enter the "dashboard," for lack of a better term. Some vendors have embraced that classification, while others find it wanting. Business intelligence solutions is another way of thinking about the subject, but it doesn't have the same resonance.
On-Screen OrganizationBroadly speaking, a dashboard is a data display tool that:
* provides a single point for accessing information from various components of an integrated management solution or set of independent applications;
* presents data in visual formats--color graphs, charts and even speedometer-like dials, rather than simply as numbers in tables;
* allows for periodic updating as needed, potentially including real-time reporting; and
* can be customized to display the information most relevant to an individual user, generally without the need to do any coding. (Vendors typically provide a set of pre-configured dashboards that can be used as is or with refinements by the individual user.)
One reason some management system vendors prefer to steer clear of using the term dashboard is its history outside of the printing industry. A whole software segment for generic manufacturing environments has developed around third-party solutions that aggregate information from disparate management systems.
It's only been since 2003 that the required tools and applications started to reach a level of performance where this type of data aggregation became practical, says Scott St. Cyr, CEO of Cyrious Software in Baton Rouge, LA. Microsoft has been a champion of software dashboards as a broader interface concept, he adds. Its .NET Framework and other technologies offer advantages for developers of production management applications running on the Windows platform, St. Cyr asserts.
While it is possible to leverage the dashboard development work done for other manufacturing sectors, vendors of management systems for the printing industry generally agree it has unique needs.
Printers typically are dealing with a high number of different jobs that can be short runs, which is not the typical manufacturing scenario, points out David Taylor, president of Radius Solutions in Chicago. However, the level of sophistication offered in some of the generic dashboards is becoming of interest to printers. Adapting such a solution entails the same challenges as implementing a standard ERP application within a printing operation, Taylor asserts.
Radius' Pecas Vision system includes a Shop Floor Data Capture module for monitoring the production floor and a Data Analyzer tool Taylor describes as an entry-level dashboard that shows the potential of this capability. The company has also integrated a more sophisticated third-party solution called Core View.
In a similar fashion, PRIMAC Systems elected to form a partnership with Management Information Tools Inc. (MITI) to add the MITS OLAP/Business Intelligence suite of tools to its management system. One of those tools, MITS Discover, includes an optional dashboard that enables tracking of a company's KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), points out Larry Austin, general manager of Dallas-based PRIMAC. This seamless integration enables users to create custom dashboards that can include graphical displays of data, stoplight buttons to reflect red/yellow/green conditions and other elements.
Third-party dashboards also may be the answer for printers with internally developed management systems and those that have done their own system integration.
Whether it comes from a third party or is developed internally, vendors can also have differing opinions on whether a dashboard is simply another name for the enhanced reporting function inherent in the core management system or a distinct product that sits on top of the MIS/ERP solution.
Most information management systems offer visual representations of data, which is really what the capability is all about, says Andrew Grasso, marketing coordinator at CRC Information Systems in Scottsdale, AZ. "The information is out there (in the system), so now you're just specifying that you want it to be displayed in one centralized area so you can monitor it very quickly," he explains. "We choose not to use that term (dashboard) for the capability."
Grasso contends that several of the modules in CRC's The System solution offer the functionality of a dashboard, including the XmR 13-week rolling history graphs, Executive Overview customizable entry screen and Financial Ratios modules. The 24-month rolling history reports built into each module also fit the bill, he says.
Use of graphics along with tabular data has been a reporting feature of state-of-the-art management solutions for several years, asserts Chris Wood, vice president sales and marketing at DiMS! organizing print in Lisle, IL. The first screen that comes up when users log on to the company's management system is a dashboard, which it calls iDiMS! Today. Part of what distinguishes this screen as a dashboard are the workflow functions it incorporates along with the reporting feature, he explains.
"I think the term dashboard is still very applicable because it registers with people," says Bob Kutschke, general manager of the Business Workflow Product Group at Kodak's Graphic Communications Group (KGCG) in Rochester, NY. "We treat this capability as part of the core Kodak EMS system, though, because we believe it is critical to a company's ability to operate efficiently."
Key financial indicators are going to be applicable across industries, but other requirements are unique to the printing industry, Kutschke adds. "We had a client ask us to create a dashboard just around the proof in/proof out workflow step, for example," he says.
Kutschke agrees that going beyond information reporting to providing launching points for other areas of the system adds value to a dashboard. That capability will be in Kodak EMS when it's released in July of this year.
The Prism Win management system offers users several methods to access interactive reports or query screens that provide business intelligence, notes Don Goldman, product manager at Prism USA Holdings in Wilmington, MA. This includes a new dynamic tool, called Prism-QTMS iQ, that was launched at PRINT 05 and "provides user-defined menus or 'dashboards' of functions and features," he adds.
The Prism dashboard is made up of a number of actionable buttons that can be linked to key indicator reports and data, along with providing shortcuts for launching modules, according to Goldman.
Cyrious Control software similarly uses function keys to trigger the gathering of information that is then displayed through a graphical reporting interface. In its initial development work for users in the sign and large-format printing sector, St. Cyr says the company found that access to information at a higher level was a key to growth for franchises using the system. Aggregation of data in real-time has continued to be a central feature of Cyrious' integrated management solution as it has expanded into other business sectors, including commercial printing, he reports.
EFI, by comparison, decided to develop its Enterprise Information System (EIS) as a separate tool in part to avoid having to develop the same capability for each of the management systems that the company offers, says Michael Henderson, product manager for EIS. The core of this dashboard system will essentially be the same for each MIS, but the installer may vary depending on the underlying database used by the MIS, he adds.
According to Henderson, the company's initial development phase has focused on data of use to executives for running their businesses, but it plans to expand into other areas, such as production. The product has been undergoing a staggered beta testing program that started with the PSI platform and commercialization will follow the same pattern, he says. Users who upgraded to the latest version of their MIS software and who have contracted for support will receive two EIS licenses.
The sampling of perspectives offered here by no means includes the entire universe of management system vendors, but it should be a fair representation of the range of thought on the subject. Setting aside the issues with its name and how this capability is implemented, there is agreement on the benefits of a dashboard.
"You can look at reports all day long, but sometimes you just need to see something visually and it will pop out at you," says CRC's Grasso. "It's all about providing information in real-time to management so they can make quick decisions. The problem with reports is that they are traditionally produced after the fact. A lot of the time the information comes too late to act on."
"Printing is such a low-margin business that you've got to be efficient in your production process and be able to monitor and reduce your costs in order to stay alive," adds Radius' Taylor. "This capability is changing the way businesses are run because it is making data available to management earlier in the production process when there is an opportunity to change the way work is produced."
Beyond dashboards, several of the industry execs see alerting/notification functions as another type of business intelligence capability potentially offered in management solutions. This enables "managing by exception," they note.
Users can define parameters for activities recorded in the database, such as exceeding the 30 minutes estimated for press makeready, and then the system will alert designated personnel via the client software or e-mail whenever an exception is detected.