Open Menu Close Menu

Business Intelligence Software >> Get Smart

Now you can analyze data to unlock new revenue opportunities and shave operational costs. Just pick your BI software provider, and get empowered.

8Gary Augustson is turning data into knowledge at Pennsylvania State University. As the university’s vice provost of Information Technology, Augustson has recently embraced business intelligence (BI) Powerplay software from Cognos Inc. ( as a tool to empower more than 1,000 staff members across multiple disciplines.

The results have been impressive. Those Penn State employees now use Cognos’s software to report on and analyze student and administrative data across such functions as alumni relations, development, graduate school, human resources, enrollment, budgeting, and undergraduate admissions. With the new software, Augustson asserts, staff members have instant access to data and the ability to “slice and dice” information to spot trends on the fly. Penn State’s graduate school, for instance, is using Cognos to review more than 140 educational programs at the school. Data is culled from a number of areas such as average GRE scores, average MAT, average GMAT scores, and average time to degree.

This information is then sent to the Graduate Council committee, which reviews the information and identifies areas for improvement—as well as potential areas of opportunity. For instance, the council can identify key towns and cities that generate students with stronger-than-average G-MAT scores. Then, the school’s admissions team can craft marketing messages that specifically recruit students from those geographies.

In many cases, BI software is replacing common spreadsheets to gather and analyze information from multiple departmental databases. Spreadsheets are limited and become unwieldy as users attempt to link them to more and more sources of data. In stark contrast, BI applications are designed to easily gather information from back-end databases and data marts. In other words, Powerplay is essentially a data mart. And BI software also includes built-in tools for rapidly generating reports, uncovering trends that might be overlooked in the spreadsheet world.

Just ask Augustson. “The size and diversity of Penn State demanded a business intelligence solution that could bring together data from all aspects of university administration and student life and make information accessible and usable by our employees,” he says. “We [now] have a powerful reporting and analysis solution that is helping us to increase efficiencies and recognize cost-saving opportunities across departments.” With BI, for instance, Penn State can analyze annual giving to the university, allowing the Development office to better understand when and how to contact established and prospective benefactors.

Why They’re Jumping On Board

Penn State’s fondness for BI software isn’t unique. Across the country, more and more universities are discovering the power of BI software as they seek to improve student enrollment, student retention, fundraising, and day-to-day operations.
In many ways, universities are now mirroring corporate America’s love affair with BI technology, and following the business world’s route of exposure to the BI market. Indeed, 48 percent of US companies with a thousand or more employees plan to purchase BI software this year, according to analysts at Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research Inc. ( And within three years, more than 70 percent of SAP’s customers—including universities—will be running BI software. Not surprisingly, part of BI’s popularity is tied to the software’s cost and relative ease of deployment. For $150,000 or less in software licensing costs, enterprises can get a BI system up and running. One caveat, however: Watch out for hidden costs such as labor, maintenance, hardware, and training.

“The growing popularity of BI software is undeniable,” notes Clayton Banks, president of Ember Media Inc. (, a consulting firm that works closely with multiple universities, including the New York Institute of Technology, and many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). “Like any well-run business, universities want a deeper look into their operations. BI software gives you that.”

At George Washington University (DC), for instance, administrators and staffers are using BI software and data warehousing tools from Informatica Corp. ( to integrate data from various Oracle ( and SunGard SCT ( systems. Informatica’s software allows the university to generate improved data quality standards and procedures, while reusing standardized reports to cut overall IT costs. Prior to deploying Informatica’s software, GW’s historical information was buried deeply in disparate databases. As a result, analysts in various departments of the university were often asked to create reports using proprietary programs or highly technical applications. But the reports were inconsistent department- to-department because there was no standard way to gather and analyze data in a timely manner. With an assist from Informatica, the university designed a data mart that delivers BI capabilities and reusable, standardized reports to users, according to Peter Barton, manager for Data Administration at the university.

The George Washington University example, and dozens of others, reveal that many universities aren’t willing to “rip and replace” existing back-end systems when exploring BI software. Rather, most universities connect their BI applications to a centralized database, often called a data warehouse or data mart. BI software can also gather information from enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) apps. SAP AG (, for one, designed its BI application to work with the company’s ERP software as well as third-party ERP applications from PeopleSoft Corp. (, Oracle, and other major technology companies. Regardless of where a university’s data resides (in a mainframe, on a minicomputer, or on a departmental server), SAP’s BI tools can retrieve and analyze it.

“You can’t tell a university to dump its current systems,” says Lothar Schubert, senior manager of product marketing at SAP. “You’ve got to integrate people, information, and processes.”

Perhaps BI’s greatest strength is its ability to gather information from multiple geographies to form a global view of a university. Instead of working in individual silos, employees anywhere can use BI software to compare data across specific regions and across the world, spot trends within particular geographies, and identify opportunities that unlock new revenues, improve profit margins, or lower business costs. One example: BI applications can spot whether international students prefer one set of student dorms over another. The university can either promote this trend or, say, try to improve student diversity in the dorms, depending on which scenario best serves the university and its students.

Decisions, Decisions

BI software is built around 10 key elements. When building your BI short list, address them all with these questions:

Data Access. How sophisticated are the product’s data acquisition (mining and modeling) capabilities?

Industry Specialization. How well d'es the product serve higher education? Some BI vendors’ apps, for instance, are designed for retail customers, while others serve the financial services sector. Check to see how the BI applications embrace university needs.

Analytical Depth. D'es the product perform historical, real-time analysis (i.e., current day) and support query, reporting, and predictive analysis?

Beyond Windows and the Web. D'es the product support all of the university’s desktop operating systems and Web browsers?

Security. How easy is it for the product to lock down from probing eyes?

Integration. How well d'es the software work with the existing enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and database applications?

Scalability. Can the application effectively support more and more users as the university grows?

Globalization. How suitable is the product for use in foreign markets?

Partner Strength. How strong is the software company’s overall business model? Will it be around to answer service calls five years from now?

Cost. What are the licensing fees and ongoing support costs?

Who’s Using What, and Why

Still, there can be too much of a good thing; a sea of BI options can drown university CIOs. Unlike the database and operating system sectors—which are consolidating around fewer and fewer options—dozens of vendors specialize in BI applications. It’s safe to expect some consolidation in the BI sector, but many independent options remain, including software from
Business Objects (, Cognos, Informatica Corp., Oracle Corp., SAP, SAS Institute (, Computer Associates International Inc. (, Information Builders (, and MicroStrategy (

Eager for more information about emerging BI tools, many professionals flocked to the Business Intelligence Symposium at The University of Alabama in late October. According to Michael Hardin, professor of Statistics at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce, the symposium, sponsored by SAS, showed attendees how BI tools allow users to make more educated business decisions that can give an organization (or a university, in this case) a competitive advantage. The partnership between the university and SAS has been mutually beneficial, he says: SAS has awarded grants to the institution valued at more than $500,000, mostly through business intelligence software used for research and development purposes.
Even students and professors are jumping on the BI Bandwagon. At Robert Morris University (PA), for instance, Professor Denis Rudd wanted to show hospitality and tourism management students the consequences of various financial, accounting, and customer service scenarios. Toward that end, Rudd utilized BI software from Aptech Computer Systems Inc. ( Rudd hopes the move will improve the quality of education, give graduates a competitive advantage in the job market, and result in better customer service in the hotel and tourism industries.

“With BI software, students can visualize financial accounting functions to go along with my examples,” says Rudd. “They can see the data change on screen, and see it go to different levels way down to base data.”

For example, students can examine business at Hilton Hotels, drilling down into various geographies (such as the Northeastern US), before looking deeper into prominent properties in New England and, finally, occupancy rates for top-line Hilton hotels in Boston.

“By the time they graduate, we plan on the students being very proficient in leading-edge BI software tools and computer operating skills,” says Rudd. He notes that the hotel industry as a whole is shifting from operational efficiency to BI and wireless platforms. He predicts the speed of transmitting data wirelessly will drive the need for BI tools to quickly decipher the data.
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is taking a slightly different approach to BI. According to Mark Willis, executive director of Administrative Information Technology there, when it came time to gather data from an IBM mainframe and RS/6000 server, the university turned to Information Builders’ ( WebFocus tools. The institution revamped its reporting process so that staff could directly access back-end data, rather than relying on the IT department to cull the information. Today, WebFocus Power Reporter provides point-and-click reports over the Web to approved users. And an automated e-mail system, built upon WebFocus Report Broker, routes scheduled reports to the appropriate recipients.

The situation is similar at Florida International University’s Office of Institutional Research in Miami. That office is charged with collecting, interpreting, and disseminating university data, including the preparation of reports required by university, state, and federal agencies. The accuracy, consistency, and timeliness of the reports are critical to overall university operations, notes a university spokesperson. Typical requests to the office include reports about enrollment trends; faculty workload; faculty, staff, and student characteristics; applied, admitted, and enrolled admissions information; course information; retention and graduation analyses; and space utilization.

To gather information for those reports, this university, too, turned to WebFocus, which reportedly took less than two days to deploy. Administrators at Florida International estimate that the system saves $18,000 each year in printing costs, and more than $1,000 per day in time-sharing costs, all the while reducing the human resources needed to produce daily reports.

A Sampler of BI Options

BI software providers include:
Business Objects

Insider Info: A noted leader in the BI market.

Cognos Inc.

Insider Info: Large BI software provider deriving most of its $683M annual revenue from BI customers, including top universities.

Computer Associates International Inc.

Insider Info: Not a BI powerhouse, but expected to focus increasingly on data management and analysis. Under a new management team that includes interim CEO Ken Cron. Higher ed sector not yet a major focus.

Informatica Corp.

Insider Info: Not a BI powerhouse, but George Washington U’s deployment may stir interest among other universities.

Information Builders

Insider Info: The WebFocus tool is widely popular for culling information and presenting it via a Web browser. Strong following in higher education.


Insider Info: After suffering a dotcom implosion, company has rebounded nicely

Oracle Corp.

Insider Info: The database king is a natural choice for BI tools for many universities, but will IBM DB2 and Microsoft SQL Server customers break ranks and test Oracle’s tools?


Insider Info: The No. 1 provider of enterprise apps is now emerging as a major BI player.

SAS Institute

Insider Info: Privately held company is changing its conservative ways and raising its marketing efforts in a bid to promote its strong lineup of BI tools.

Evaluating Your Options

Of course, BI applications vary greatly. Some databases include basic BI functionality but lack key features for specific vertical markets. For instance, universities may require BI applications that understand regulatory requirements or financial aid information that is specific to the higher education sector, while manufacturers may require BI capabilities that understand government regulations for the safe handling of chemicals.

Still not sure which path to follow? TDWI is a great resource. Visit TDWI Online to take a look at the TDWI Report, “Smart Companies in the 21st Century: The Secrets of Creating Successful BI Solutions” by Wayne Eckerson. Or for more exhaustive scrutiny, head to the next TDWI conference for the crash course, “Evaluating Business Intelligence Toolsets,” which covers the capabilities of every BI player. And don’t overlook consulting: Third-party consulting firms now on the BI bandwagon—from Accenture Ltd. ( and Sapient Corp. (, to Unisys Corp. (—are eager to offer guidance. Unisys, in particular, is calling for customers to consolidate and standardize their BI activities onto fewer applications, which will speed project payoffs. Says Bill Jefferis, director of Business Intelligence at Unisys: “The endgame in business intelligence is the ability to make better and faster decisions, and the way to accomplish this is through standard, easy-to-use reporting capabilities accessible to employees throughout the enterprise.” It’s looking like more and more university CIOs agree with that assessment.

comments powered by Disqus