Air Canada puts browser-based BI into pilot mode

ORLANDO, Fla. — Air Canada may span the globe in terms of its flight coverage, but the firm is trying to be equally diligent at keeping its international sales force in the loop.

Since December, Air Canada has been beta-testing Information Builders‘s Active Reports (version 7.1.3, released last month) a browser-based reporting tool. There are more than 70 Air Canada sales managers using it from Asia to Australia, all with different levels of IT and Internet access.

Before Active Reports, they could all access an intranet portal for sales data, but infrastructure challenges made viewing the information difficult for some, said Chantal Berthiaume, Air Canada’s manager of marketing intelligence. By serving up data using Active Reports, which is pushed out via e-mail, Air Canada has some assurance that its international reps are seeing what they need to see.

But “the biggest problem wasn’t technical, it was managing their requirements,” said Berthiaume, who spoke Tuesday at IBI’s Summit 2006 user conference.

Sales have to be tracked by agency, country and sales region. It’s possible, for example, that ticket sales could have come via one of Air Canada’s StarAlliance partners, which currently has more than a dozen member airlines. The situation is complicated by the fact that paper-based tickets have to sent to Air Canada’s Mexican office to be scanned in, so some sales may not be registered until months after the actual date of purchase.

Also, Air Canada doesn’t necessarily want its sales office in Germany to know what its U.K. office is generating, so reports have to be individualized.

Fortunately, Active Reports is malleable enough to be able to meet most of these concerns, said Berthiaume.

The idea that business intelligence is the domain of only a few decision makers within an organization is starting to lose ground, said Wayne Eckerson, research director at The Data Warehouse Institute.

“Even at the highest levels of the company, we’re finding that people want to look at operational data,” said Eckerson, who spoke at an earlier session. “Most users just want parameterized reports. . . . If you don’t know what your users are doing, you can’t anticipate what the uptake of a new release will be. I think you’re just running in the dark.”

Berthiaume has been responsible for business intelligence at Air Canada since 1999, when the airline was still generating reports from mainframe data. Since then, it has standardized on IBI tools and steadily migrated much of its data from legacy applications. Most of Air Canada’s IT infrastructure has been outsourced to IBM through a massive deal that was originally signed in the 1990s, but the company continues to manage its own business intelligence internally.

“People think that all we do is just reports,” said Berthiaume, “but we’re always busy.” Her department has five developers: two for IBI’s WebFocus suite (which includes Active Reports), one for Oracle, one business analyst who acts as liaison with IBM, and one developer for maintenance and to handle ad hoc requests.

Berthiaume said her group manages training and access and provides guidance for users who have difficulty interpreting reports. She also said she receives a lot of unrelated IT questions as well.

Now that the production edition of Active Reports is available, she will have to handle the migration from the beta edition that is currently in service. She expects the hand-over to occur later this summer.

In the meantime, there are other technical issues to contend with, such as getting users to view data on the correct browser. In this case, Firefox is more efficient than Microsoft Internet Explorer for viewing reports. But Firefox isn’t the standard browser at Air Canada, said Berthiaume, so she has to convince the powers that be in IT to make it part of the sanctioned desktop image.

IBI introduced its Power Painter report generation tool at Summit 2006 on Monday, but Berthiaume said she doesn’t anticipate that Air Canada employees will have a need for it. “We really spoonfeed our users.”

Eventually Active Reports may be used in Air Canada’s domestic facilities, said Berthiaume, but the international sales offices were an ideal beta group, given their relatively small size and connectivity concerns.

Summit 2006 runs through Thursday.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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