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Better Business Intelligence Through ERP

Collecting manufacturing data is one thing. Making sense of it is another. That's where business intelligence comes in.


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Once, business intelligence (BI) tools, says Jim Shepherd, vice president of Strategy at Plex Systems (plex.com), usually required “an enormous amount of effort from IT to get them in place and working.” People had to buy the software, design the data warehouse, build the cubes, figure out in advance how people might want to look at the data, and develop the extraction and transformation and passing of the data from the transactional system into the BI system. “All that stuff could take years and huge amounts of money to setup and put in place before BI became self-service,” continues Shepherd.

In its enterprise resource planning system (ERP), Plex Online (POL), all that work has already been done. Plex’s BI tool, called “IntelliPlex,” is set up for people to easily extract data from the transactional system (ERP) to the reporting system (reports and dashboards). “It’s self-service in both senses: It’s immediately available and usable by the company and by individuals,” explains Shepherd. 
ERP buyers, as well as buyers of any of these kinds of enterprise applica-tions, are a pretty mature and savvy group, points out Shepherd. “This may be their third or fourth system they’ve implemented. They recognize that a huge part of the value from these systems is related to not just processing transactions, but to getting information out of them.” That is, BI tools are important, too. These tools make big data more of an asset through data filtering, analyses, and display, ultimately helping people make sense of ERP for better decision making regarding manufacturing efficiency, competitive advantage, 
and making a profit.

Why the big deal now?

BI tools have been around for decades. So have manufacturing-based transactional systems, such as ERP (and before that, manufacturing resource planning, MRP II, and before that, materials requirements planning, MRP). Online, cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) ERP systems are relatively new. But it’s not the online-ness that’s driving BI to the fore, according to Jerry Foster, vice president of R&D for Plex. First, the amount of data companies are collecting is huge. Second, the exponential growth in the amount of data requires a new way of thinking. Old BI just doesn’t cut it insofar as fast, real-time queries and getting relevant data from huge datasets in the cloud.
Also, the demographics have changed, says Shepherd. “The new generation of business managers has a completely different expectation for how they’re going to interact with business systems, including the kind of information they need to run the business. They are so much more comfortable with technology. They have an expectation of having this kind of reporting capa-bility, these kinds of dashboards, and these ad hoc analytical capabilities—capabilities their predecessors in management never had before.”
Last, he continues, many companies that have gone with cloud-based products do so because “they have a limited IT staff. Or they want to have a very limited IT staff.”

A BI toolset

IntelliPlex is a BI product from New York-based Information Builders (informationbuilders.com). This is not a bolt-on product; it is more like “embedded BI,” that is, fully integrated within POL. Data and real-time data analysis is immediately accessible through the BI tool shortly after data has been entered into the ERP system. Because IntelliPlex comes with POL, says Shepherd, all customers have essentially bought a license to use the BI product. As a result, Plex can easily produce reports and build dashboards as part of the standard POL product. 
Like POL, IntelliPlex is in the cloud and accessible from desktops, tablets, or mobile devices through any Internet browser. “The entire report authoring suite for building reports and accessing data is web-based,” says Foster. “It provides fully on-line, zero-footprint capabilities, combined with the inte-gration of the actual production data.”
IntelliPlex has BI tools for gathering, viewing, and reporting. Casual users of data analysis can drag-and-drop data sources onto a panel, and then drag, click, and otherwise select what types of charts and graphs are wanted. It’s all available through a graphical WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) user interface. Detailed reports and charts include drill-down, sharing, and off-line viewing capabilities. People can download reports to analyze, reformat, and otherwise use offline, as well as change the views and filter data offline. (Data from other systems can be imported using CSV files.) Reports can include multi-site and multi-functional data. Finished reports can be exported in several formats, including HTML, PDF, and Microsoft Excel. Password access can be added to control report access. The BI environment also caters to power-users. Says Foster, “Those writing complex SQL queries against their own data can save those queries as actual data sources to be used in IntelliPlex.”
Both types of users can customize their own screens and dashboards. They can also combine reports, charts, and other data to create compound documents for viewing online or publishing to a document or presentation. And all this can be done ad hoc and without IT support. “I’m an English major and I can use it. That’s part of the test,” jokes Shepherd. Then again, maybe he’s not joking. Making sense of ERP data is certainly no joke.