Business Intelligence

Tools for making smarter business decisions.

Well-informed business decisions begin with an integrated software system that accurately measures and records both operational and financial transactions in a timely manner. When business data are woven together with modern business intelligence (BI) tools and technologies, welding and gases distributors can quickly uncover inefficiencies in the supply chain and make smarter business decisions based upon factual information instead of hunches and gut instincts. Today’s business intelligence tools come in a wide variety of technologies, such as interactive reports, analysis cubes, interactive dashboards and efficient distribution methods that automate information delivery to PCs and smart phones alike.

Reports – From Static to Dynamic
For years now, businesses have relied upon standard system printed reports as the primary tool to help make business decisions. These “canned” reports provide a snapshot in time of a distributor’s business (i.e., a sales report by customer and/or product, days sales outstanding (DSO) report, stock status report or a report listing cylinder balances by type and size of cylinder gas). Although filled with valuable information, these reports had a limited life, since they were typically printed out and hand delivered—a costly and time-consuming practice. Furthermore, there was little to no room to perform additional queries and filters should additional questions arise.

Today’s modern reports (electronic and interactive) allow the end-user to interact dynamically and drill down on report contents to perform additional filters and sorting. View electronic reports quickly and efficiently from a Windows or Web interface, saving time, money and unnecessary printing and delivery costs. Furthermore, reports can be embedded within other reports and displayed in the form of charts and graphs traditionally found in ad-hoc analysis and dashboard type technologies.

Automatic Deployment
The days of relying on IT to generate and distribute reports are a thing of the past. Today, modern reports can be automatically deployed directly to an end-user’s e-mail inbox. For example, a business owner may want to see a high-level summary of the sales by MTD/YTD with comparative periods on a weekly basis, while the branch manager might be interested in credit memos issued over the last year by branch on a monthly basis. A purchasing agent needs daily notification concerning critical items that need to be ordered. These are examples of different information requests—from owner to manager to department level—all of which can be automatically delivered via e-mail on a scheduled basis.

Dashboards display critical information on one screen and can be assembled in different configurations according to the end-user's needs.
Dashboards display critical information on one screen and can be assembled in different configurations according to the end-user’s needs.


Ad-Hoc Analysis
While interactive reports will continue to fulfill important business information needs, advanced data analysis software technologies can summarize and index massive amounts of transactional data as “cubes” of rich information. Modern business systems provide cubes to analyze general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable and cylinder control for the entire organization to share. Cubes can be analyzed with industry standard analysis tools like Microsoft Excel, as well as a variety of other third-party reporting/analysis tools. A few examples of applying cube technology toward making informed business decisions include analyzing trends in customer buying patterns, determining optimal cylinder utilization levels across multiple locations to ensure high service levels, and geo-coding delivery data to uncover distribution inefficiencies.

Advances in user interface technologies have given rise to a new kind of BI tool commonly referred to as a dashboard. Much like the gauges in a car, dashboards display critical information in an easy-to-understand format and can be assembled in different configurations according to the end-user’s information needs.

Dashboards display key performance indicators (KPIs) all on one screen, providing a complete view of the business. Key performance indicators typically display current and historical values, as well as a forecast or trend analysis in order to give the user a comprehensive picture, allowing them to make decisions based upon a complete view of the business and not one-time spikes that could skew data.

Key performance metrics can be color-coded based upon specific parameters. For example, when a KPI falls outside the range of acceptable values, the value can turn from green (good) to red (needs attention), making it very easy for the user to keep a pulse on the business and know when action is needed.

Today’s integrated business systems can generate an unlimited number of dashboards with multiple key performance indicators used by all levels of the organization. From owner/executive to manager to departmental worker, everyone has access to the right information to self monitor each part of the business.

Activity-Based Costing
With the economic slowdown and constant pressure on profit margins, more and more distributors are turning to activity-based costing tools to help uncover underperforming product lines, customers and operating inefficiencies.

Activity-based costing, or the ability to measure critical business operation areas like cylinder filling (What does it cost to fill a cylinder?), quality control and distribution (What does it cost to deliver a cylinder to the customer?) have taken on significant meaning and importance given the new realities of today’s economy and competitive landscape. By using activity-based costing to measure business profitability below the gross margin level, distributors can combine traditional business measurements and metrics with those of activity-based costing to obtain a true and accurate picture of business profitability.

Mobile BI
It is estimated that within the next few years, over half of all cell phones sold will be smart phones. A smart phone combines the ability to make/receive phone calls, send/receive text messages, browse the Web, take pictures and video, send/receive e-mail, and run individual software applications on a single device. The leading platforms shaping this landscape include RIM (Blackberry), iPhone, Windows Mobile and Android.

Mobile BI allows business intelligence to be displayed and accessed directly on the smart phone instead of a PC or laptop. Critical alerts and KPIs display directly on the smart phone, which is rapidly breaking down the walls of instant access to critical business information and holds promise to fulfill a number of other needs for mobile workers.

In short, today’s business systems deliver on-demand personalized business intelligence that is accessible inside and outside the traditional corporate walls.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
David Schaer Meet the Author
David Schaer is the president of Computers Unlimited, located in Billings, Montana, and on the Web at He is a member of GAWDA’s Management Information Committee.