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Until this year, college financial aid offices complained about requesting customized student loan reports from...

Elm Resources Inc. -- especially during the busy back-to-school season.

Staff at the Oakland, Calif.-based not-for-profit had similar feelings. Elm had three to five staff members engaged in manually customizing more than 1,600 reports daily for customers. The process was time-consuming for the small company that runs a student loan data exchange network, facilitating transactions among thousands of college financial aid offices and lenders. Elm's customized software-as-a-service product processes more than 4.5 million loans each year, representing about a third of the student loan market.

The organization conducted a survey last year, which revealed growing frustration with its reporting process, according to Pierre Vedel, senior vice president and chief information officer. Seeing the results, the company knew it needed a new business intelligence (BI) tool. But before acting, Vedel said, Elm turned the tables and asked users what they really wanted.

"Anytime they interacted with us, the process just slowed down because of how many people we have to support," Vedel explained. "Users complained that they couldn't get the information they needed, it took too long, and when they wanted to change something, they had to go through this formal process of requests."

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It was clear to Elm that users wanted a new BI tool with ad hoc report design capabilities, though they didn't necessarily use that terminology. Elm's users are mostly non-technical college financial aid office staff. Any reporting tool that Elm deployed had to be easy to use -- otherwise, Elm staff would end up talking to users more often. So the team spent lots of time up-front working with users to determine exactly what they wanted, Vedel said.

Elm conducted user surveys, met with people from their school advisory team, and talked to their board members. They created interface mock-ups, showed them to users, then refined the mock-ups and brought them to users again. The process took about six months, including budget approval, but according to Vedel, it was time well spent.

The company evaluated tools from South San Francisco-based Actuate Corp. and Ottawa-based Cognos Inc. Elm selected the Cognos 8 BI platform "hands down" because of its usability, interface and interoperability with other systems, Vedel said. Currently, the Cognos BI tool pulls data only from Elm's custom application, which uses an Oracle database. In the longer term, the company plans to include data from its Siebel customer relationship management system and another homegrown application.

With assistance from consultants, Elm completed its BI implementation in May, faster than it had planned, and began training users over the summer. The response has been extremely positive, Vedel said. Users have liked the "Microsoft-type" interface because it had the look and feel that they're already comfortable with.

"Users love [the new reporting tool] because it takes them about five minutes to learn how to use it, and they're productive within an hour," Vedel said.

Financial aid offices report that the tool is a huge time-saver because it allows them to look at the data exactly how they want to see it, Vedel said. The reports show schools information about all of their students' loans, such as where they are in the disbursement process. And, he added, though most of the users are at colleges, lenders can also access the system. Users can start with canned reports and customize them to their needs, or build their own reports from scratch.

Elm's staff is happy to be off the report-customization job.

"[The new reporting tool] has enabled my staff to focus on other value-added propositions besides writing reports -- it's enormously effective," Vedel said.

Elm believes that it will achieve its return-on-investment in about a year, Vedel said. Once the busy back-to-school season is over, the company will survey customers again. Customer feedback has been critical to the project's success, he said. Though the initial process of gathering their input took a long time, it was well worth it.

"We spent the time to truly understand what customers wanted," Vedel said. "The more you do up-front, the easier the job will be."

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