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Reach out to business users with inventive data management practices

Technology professionals at two well known firms are finding that innovative data management practices can help business users improve their job performance.

Business workers and technology staff are often viewed as distinctly separate groups, but at least two companies are taking steps to blur those lines, and the process has led to forward-thinking data management practices and better business intelligence (BI).

IT industry analysts and technology conference speakers have been talking about the importance of “business and IT alignment” for many years. After all, they say, everyone is on the same team and working toward the common goal of improving the business. In practice, however, relations between business and IT don’t always go so smoothly. IT departments have trouble getting application requirements from business users; business workers complain that IT and BI team workers take too long to fix problems or produce reports; and the list of gripes goes on.

But with the rise of pervasive BI and self-service everything, IT professionals say that typical business users are becoming more tech savvy. And some organizations, like the Great American Insurance Group (GAIC) and WestJet Airlines Ltd., are finding that the time is right to seek higher levels of business and IT engagement.

GAIC engages business users with innovative data management practices

Technology professionals at Cincinnati-based GAIC are having great success with a new project designed to let rank-and-file business users design their own information source, said Mark Schlafman, the insurance company’s BI manager.

Schlafman, who spoke during an interview at the recent IBM Information on Demand conference in Las Vegas, said the project began when business users realized that they were having problems dealing with insurance claims.

When a customer files a claim with GAIC, it sets off a series of events, Schlafman explained. For example, the customer is notified that the claim is being processed, an adjustor gets involved and decisions are made as to what portions of the claim can be paid quickly. But administrators and other workers at the company were having trouble finding the information they needed at different stages of the claims process -- and the task of information gathering required workers to wade through many information sources.

“We deal with a lot of claims,” Schlafman said. “And the business problem is they really didn’t have enough visibility into the claims management [process].”

In an attempt to solve the problem, Schlafman said the business and technology workers at GAIC worked together and came up with a plan: Give the business users their own sandbox that could be used to pull in pertinent claims-related data from several different sources, and then slap a Web-based dashboard on top of it for BI reporting purposes.

“We set up a development SQL Server environment and we said, ‘Use this and you can create what you want to create -- if you support it,’” Schlafman said. “It took three months, [but] they pulled information from our financial data warehouse and our claims data warehouse and then a couple of other ancillary sources.”

Information architects at GAIC oversaw the project and offered guidance, Schlafman said, but the business users did most of the heavy lifting themselves.

GAIC looking to use Web-based dashboards in innovative ways

The Web-based dashboard that the business workers built included multiple tabs that users could click on to view information related to an individual claim or historical summations of specific types of claims.

The project has been so successful that Schlafman’s department has now been asked to look at ways to migrate the system to a production environment and perhaps add some customer-facing features.

“Right now we’re going through this and we’re trying to figure out where we want to put it and  [how to] make it [production-worthy] so it gets the same service levels that all the other enterprise data assets get,” Schlafman said.

According to Schlafman, one of the morals of GAIC’s story is that IT departments should not underestimate business users.

“Don’t squash innovation,” he said. “We just let them go and do it on their own, and they came up with some things that we would have never thought of [on our own].”

WestJet takes business user BI training seriously

It’s always a good idea for organizations to keep business users abreast of data management practices and to stress the importance of things like data quality and data governance -- and some organizations accomplish this through brief training seminars and informative emails.

But Calgary, Alberta-based WestJet Airlines is looking at ways to take business user technology training to the next level, said Chris Sorensen, the airline’s BI manager.

Sorensen, who also spoke during an interview at Information on Demand, said WestJet is currently working toward a goal of increasing the use of BI self-service tools so that workers will be free to create their own reports. But helping business users achieve that goal will require training -- and Sorensen said a recently piloted test program may be just the thing. 

During the test program, WestJet “embedded” business workers with the BI department so they could learn about the process of creating reports from the technologist’s standpoint. After a short time, the business users went back to their normal jobs, armed with greater insights about BI technology.

The program has worked out so well that WestJet is now considering the possibility of making “BI incubator” instruction a mandatory part of the new employee training. It hasn’t happened yet, but Sorensen envisions a day when new employees are required to work full time in the BI unit for at least a couple of weeks before moving on to their permanent roles.

“The goal there is trying to push some BI skills out into the business,” Sorensen said. “And then, conversely, there are some skills from the business that we want to bring back here as well.”

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