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Co-op embraces real-time analytics with Web-based BI platform

Blood Centers of America dumped Excel spreadsheets for a Web-based BI platform that enables collaboration and delivers real-time analytics.

It’s not surprising to learn organizations are still in midst of a serious love affair with Excel spreadsheets. Just last month, Ventana Research Inc. released a report detailing how popular the tool remains for small and medium-sized enterprises even as more sophisticated alternatives become cheaper. While a stumbling block for many organizations using Excel are mistakes in data entry, a major issue for Blood Centers of America (BCA) was communication.

BCA, a national cooperative that provides 30% of the country’s transfusions, utilized spreadsheets and email to collect and disseminate data and benchmarking, but the system constricted frequent sharing among its 36 centers.

In other words, members spent time operating on their own islands, according to Greg Bishop, the director of information services for BCA and the sole member of its IT department. While annual gatherings provided opportunities for data comparisons and discussions on how to improve operations, the meetings typically looked back at all of the metrics rather than relying on any advanced reporting methods.

Six years ago, BCA started searching for better data collection and dashboard software to share information more efficiently. Specifically, BCA sought out a system that could provide benchmarking capabilities -- enabling each of the 36 blood centers to access information hosted in a single location. In December 2005, the organization selected LogiXML, a Web-based analytics and data visualization platform, for its front-end business intelligence (BI) tool, supported by a SQL Server 2000 database.

“This does two things,” Bishop said. “It allows us -- the cooperative -- to compare how different centers are doing. But, more importantly, members can benchmark themselves against blood centers of the same size.”

BCA began using the new tool for operational metrics, but according to Bishop, that has since grown to include quality, finance and even telemarketing.

Middle of the road met with competition
While BCA searched for a platform to invest in, the cooperative kept in mind ease of installation and cost, which knocked out bigger vendors like Cognos and MicroStrategy, Bishop said.

“We’re a co-op; we don’t own the centers,” he said. “We didn’t want to pass those costs along to our partners.”

One of the attractions for BCA was the software vendor’s licensing structure. While some vendors charge per user, LogiXML charges per processor, an attribute regarded as a strength by the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc.’s recent Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms. For BCA, which has more than 1,200 users versus 36 centers, LogiXML’s licensing plan provided a significant cost savings. Building the infrastructure to support the new platform was straightforward and cost-effective as well, Bishop said. By choosing a Web-based platform, BCA manages the system at its data center, and members need only a PC and Web browser to access the reporting tool.

Boris Evelson, a vice president and principal analyst at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said a company like LogiXML is filling a niche between the extremes of enterprises with large and complex data sets and the self-service business user environment.

“In the middle, they don’t want to spend millions of dollars on large tools or multiple tools, but Excel isn’t good enough because the data isn’t cleansed or needs to be massaged before looking at it,” he said. “That’s where LogiXML fits in.”

In fact, LogiXML's provision of a single tool for taking in data from a community of users through webforms and then reporting on that data was a selling point, BCA acknowledged. Chor-Ching Fan, senior director and product manager at LogiXML, said customers are increasingly demanding the ability to collaborate across BI tools.

“BI and reporting have basically been a one-way street,” Fan said. “More and more, the power and usefulness in BI is enriched if users can contribute to it.”

Evelson believes the quality is not unique among BI vendors, especially among the largest.

“I don’t want to say that’s a recent trend,” he said, noting that megavendors such as IBM’s Cognos and TM1 have had that kind of functionality for a long time. “Instead, the trend is for all BI vendors to provide that kind of functionality.”

According to Gartner's Magic Quadrant, LogiXML is “still small with more limited resources than other vendors, particularly Microsoft and other large, traditional BI vendors that compete roughly for the same kind of customer.”

Plus, the niche market LogiXML is currently serving isn’t that big to begin with, Evelson said, and is being introduced to even more challengers all the time.

“As we go forward, we will see more pressure from large vendors playing in the same space,” he said.

Selection to implementation
Bishop conceded that BCA could have deployed Microsoft SharePoint, but the system required extra steps for posting documents to a central server. He said the cooperative also considered deploying Crystal Xcelsius, a BusinessObjects product acquired by SAP in 2007, but it lacked data collaborative qualities. Crystal Xcelsius is now part of SAP’s Crystal Solutions.

“A lot of the products offered static dashboards that didn’t work in real time,” Bishop said. He added not all of the cooperative’s data is needed with such urgency, but some information, such as blood availability, is essential.

Because of LogiXML’s built-in social aspects, members are tied together more closely than they have been in the past. In the morning, a blood center could, for example, put out a call for a certain blood type directly in the system.

“As soon as they submit that data page, the system sends an email out to interested parties,” Bishop said. “That wasn’t a big thing when we were first looking around, but with that functionality … we started to realize some things are important that we didn’t think about.”

Beyond a more mainstream data delivery model, online discussion threads cover a range of topics. In one instance, a center was discarding 24% of the plasma it collected when the average was closer to 6%. The interaction with other centers revealed better procedural information, which it was able to incorporate.

“They’ve reduced the discard rate … and now they’re at 9%,” Bishop said.

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