United Farmers of Alberta cultivate BI strategy

The United Farmers of Alberta have turned to a business intelligence solution from Microsoft Canada to gain greater visibility into its business and reduce the six-week

lag time it faced in generating sales reports.

A farm supply and petroleum marketing cooperative, the Calgary-based UFA operates 34 stores and 120 petroleum outlets across Western Canada. Tim Duthie, business needs analyst in information systems for the UFA, said the organization needed a better way of tracking information like product performance, the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and customer trends.

The UFA was tracking those statistics on a monthly basis, but Duthie said the lag-time in generating those reports reduced the organization’s ability to act on the data.

“”We didn’t have much visibility into what was going on in our business,”” said Duthie. “”It took a few weeks into the month to find out what we’d done the previous month, so we were about six weeks behind. It wasn’t very timely, or easy to use.””

Most of the reporting had to be done through the information systems department, creating a heavy burden as managers had to come back to the department if they wanted to drill down further into the data.

“”That was the biggest challenge — the timeliness of the data,”” said Duthie. “”Getting it into the hands of the right people at the right time.””

Duthie said the UFA was looking to get the biggest bang for its buck in sales information, breaking down sales by product groups or even by product, or by customer group and store by store. With that in mind, the UFA went shopping for a business intelligence tool to automate the process.

“”We wanted to be open to using a wide variety of tools, so we’re not stuck with just one solution,”” said Duthie. “”We were also looking for something easy to use, and something that was quick.””

The organization selected Microsoft’s SQL Server with Analysis Services to provide the back end of its business intelligence solution, with report writing tools from Cognos on the front-end.

Quadrus Development Inc., a Calgary-based IT services firm, was brought in to customize the solution for the UFA and integrate it into its existing legacy systems, and Microsoft’s SQL Server Accelerator for Business Intelligence was used to pull together the data from disparate legacy sources into the new back end system.

Duthie said the UFA can now respond to sales trends with advertising on a daily basis, so if sales aren’t going as expected one week they can adjust their advertising the next week as appropriate. Previously, the UFA was reliant on monthly flyers as their main advertising vehicle, and they were printed well in advance.

“”By the time it goes out things might have changed, crops may have been laid,”” said Duthie. “”Now we’re able to respond quicker with local newspaper ads and radio advertising much more sensitive to what’s going on.””

Darren Massel, marketing manager for SQL Server with Microsoft Canada, said the implementation with the UFA, working with partners like Quadra, and plugging in third-party software from companies like Cognos, is a good example of how Microsoft has been able to “”verticalize”” business intelligence solutions and customize them for the unique needs of individual customers.

“”Business intelligence is really a common problem for most organizations, to be able to aggregate their information, build a report on it and analyze it,”” said Massel. “”For us it scales up from our smaller and mid-market customers right up to our largest enterprise customers.””

Massel said the software is built with a number of open industry standards to allow third-party partners to build into the platform. He added Microsoft has also developed a number of front-end solutions of their own customers are plugging into the backend to analyze data, like Office 2003, Office XP, and Data Analyzer.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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