Has the Mid-market Found Vanguard BI Solutions?

Vanguard Formula for Success

Vanguard Solutions Group, Inc. (http://www.vanguardsolutions.com) might confirm that the business intelligence (BI) market, and associated corporate performance management (CPM)/enterprise performance management (EPM) and analytics markets, have been having good times lately (in spite of the abundance of providers). Vanguard is a Chicago, IL-based, privately held BI provider that focuses on small and medium manufacturers and distributors, and on divisions of large organizations, all within certain vertical industries (e.g., chemicals, industrial manufacturing, food & beverage, life sciences/pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods), where it has a deep domain expertise. Namely, the company has recently reported that it had achieved major successes in 2004, securing new strategic partnerships, developing innovative technology solutions, and delivering measurable business value to customers.

These achievements have reportedly enabled Vanguard to increase the size of its installed customer base by more than 100 percent over the course of the year. The company's customers range from small, $25 million to multi-billion dollar companies, including Bayer AG, Intertape Polymer Group, Noveon, Parker Hannifin, Wyandot Snacks, and General Dynamics C4 Systems, who all leverage the vendor's performance management solutions that help them intelligently interpret and analyze business information.

The ability to deliver the value of practical technology to mid-market customers has been central to Vanguard's success in forging strategic partnerships with several leading enterprise software firms. To that end, during 2004, Vanguard signed original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partnerships with Exact Software, Lilly Software Associates (now part of Infor Global Solutions), and AssetPoint, which will be delved deeper into shortly. The vendor believes these agreements demonstrate the power of its solution, as well as the price and packaging flexibility of its partnering approach. The idea is to provide a sensible and cost-effective solution that would unlock value for business while providing a way to leverage and integrate existing enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and supply chain management (SCM) systems. Vanguard's opportunity is to continue to expand on the proven OEM strategy and effectively market to mid-market manufacturers within selected industries.

In mid-February, Vanguard announced a strategic partnership with AssetPoint, a provider of integrated enterprise asset management (EAM) software and services. The partnership will allow AssetPoint to license, install, and support Vanguard's Graphical Performance Series (GPS) solution for its customers as part of its TabWare suite. The new application, called TabWare Analytics, should enable clients in the manufacturing, facilities management, and services industries to immediately access detailed information about valuable business assets. The potential results for AssetPoint's clients should thereby be better, more informed decisions leading to reduced downtime and maintenance expenses, lower spare parts inventories and costs, improved purchasing efficiency, and more effectively deployed assets.

This proves that Vanguard continues to expand its network of strategic partnerships with renowned mid-market enterprise applications vendors, in its ongoing quest to seek out partners that can deliver domain expertise and outstanding customer relationships. In return, Vanguard offers partners a potent BI and analytics solution, with a great degree of flexibility. In this case, AssetPoint should now be able to offer a fully integrated, higher-value application tailored to the specific business needs of its customers. Vanguard touts to offer a partnering approach that features flexibility in pricing and packaging, along with the development of comprehensive integration to its partners' solutions. In other words, it allows its partners to bring Vanguard solutions to market as if they had developed them in-house. Vanguard offers a range of partnership opportunities, including referral programs, services partnerships, alliance partnerships, distributor partnerships, and OEM partnerships.

The above partnership is also the first to bring Vanguard's technology to the EAM market, whereas the vendor has naturally been the most entrenched in the manufacturing ERP market. Vanguard has or has had valued partnerships with renowned technology firms including former PeopleSoft/J.D. Edwards (now part of Oracle), MAPICS (now part of Infor Global Solutions), Infor Process Division (former Agilisys Process), former Marcam Solutions (now part of SSA Global), CIBER Enterprise Solutions, IBM, and Microsoft. With most traditional ERP products, translating the data stored within the transactional ERP database into information used to make prudent enterprise decisions has proven to be difficult.

Vanguard's GPS BI solution's availability and its deep understanding of operational systems within its industries of focus to build its own data and information integration capabilities that can quickly assemble data into predefined data models, has reportedly enabled the above mid-market ERP vendors to provide their customers with a valuable tool for harvesting the business value out of their database.

Part One of the Has the Mid-market Found Vanguard BI Solutions? series.

The Genesis and Current State of Affairs of Business Intelligence and Performance Management Solutions

The need for BI remains real, and its strategic importance is increasing for all enterprise applications users owing to economic and regulatory pressures, and since it is rare to find a group of users who would feel that they get all (if even most) the information they need from their enterprise software systems. While ERP and BI/analytics have been inseparable ever since the idea of business automation via information technology (IT) a way back in the 1960s, they have had different user experiences, evolutionary paths, and so on. BI is sometimes interchangeably called analytics, though there are some distinctions between them—BI is a broader set of technologies and means, whereas analytics would refer rather to all specialized software that analyzes data about a particular functional area, like marketing, sales, real estates, etc.

Namely, although ERP systems have positively transformed many enterprises' business processes, many users are still feeling oversold, due to the overwhelming notion that these systems inhibit access to the vital information that is (hopelessly) locked in them. Often indeed, in most traditional ERP systems a number of financial and other operational activities are grouped together to form artificially created processes, which bear not much resemblance to the actual business activities. In other words, ERP systems had often appeared to focus only on getting the correct figures into the general ledger (GL) and creating a transactional glut (for more information on the genesis of enterprise applications, see Enterprise Applications—The Genesis and Future, Revisited).

Conversely, known for over a few decades as executive information systems (EIS), nowadays a new breed of similar but more insightful and functional BI tools is helping enterprises operate more efficiently and profitably. Many manufacturing and distribution enterprises of all sizes are amenable to leveraging software that will not only sense a daily pulse of the operations, but will also help spot incongruities, analyze performances of many areas, and initiate corrective adjustments.

The current latest evolutionary step of BI introduces the concept of corporate performance management (CPM) (often interchangeably referred to as enterprise performance management [EPM] or business performance management [BPM]), which is an emerging portfolio of applications and methodology with the above depicted evolving BI architectures and tools at its core. Historically, various BI applications have focused on measuring sales, profit, quality, costs, and many other indicators within an enterprise, but CPM goes well beyond these by introducing the concepts of "management and feedback"—by embracing processes such as planning and forecasting as core tenets of a business strategy.

CPM also crosses traditional department boundaries (i.e., silos) to manage the full life cycle of business decision-making, combining business strategy alignment with business planning, forecasting, and modeling capabilities. It would be an umbrella term that describes the methodologies, metrics, processes, and systems used to monitor and manage the business performance of an enterprise, whereby applications that enable CPM translate strategically focused information to operational plans and send aggregated results.

CPM applications allow to share information across and even beyond the borders of the enterprise, to all employees, business partners, shareholders, and most importantly, customers. While real-time tools can open up BI to tactical and operational decisions, they also amplify the need for an effective information delivery channel. The solution might be an enterprise portal, given its high visibility and the opportunity it presents for companies to provide related context, services, and content around published BI information.

CPM is the evolutionary combination of technology and philosophy, building on the foundation of technology and applications that many enterprises will have likely already implemented. The demand for these applications lies in the fact that they incrementally add value to already installed business applications, even the legacy ones, to a degree that the enterprises may finally see some long belated benefits and feel somewhat better about implementing cumbersome ERP and other enterprise systems. Indeed, many enterprises have already deployed some BI products too, such as querying and reporting tools, planning and budgeting applications, analytic applications, incentive management systems, portals, dashboards, and scorecards, along with data warehousing technology, data models, and integration software, to name a few. Anyone attempting to conduct the technology inventory stocktaking will likely find some CPM components already in use.

The technical capabilities of current BI leaders (in terms of size) are not much more comprehensive than those of the followers or niche players. Therefore, in the long term, the winners will be those vendors that possess strong market presence and share, strong partner programs—strong channel relationships from small value added resellers [VAR's] all the way to major system integrators—, a great savvy of functional business areas and processes (ideally with a vertical focus), and the associated capabilities to integrate various data sources. The future will require continued advancements in BI architectures and more intimate integration with ubiquitous products like Microsoft Office, while savvy BI vendors will try to tackle line of business (LOB) operations to further prove the value and impact of this software category (for an extensive tutorial on BI systems see Business Intelligence Status Report).

Vanguard GPS Traits

It has been a few years since we first wrote about Vanguard and its performance management solution GPS, which provides BI for senior executives and operations and production managers within finance, sales, purchasing, product development, or marketing departments. For instance, GPS has long been offered as fully integrated into the venerable MAPICS XA (now MAPICS ERP for iSeries) ERP product, whereby no major development is required (see MAPICS XA Expands BI Offering Through Partnership With Vanguard). GPS includes a large number of pre-packaged analytics of MAPICS XA data, featuring summary analysis and drill-down to both lower levels of summarization and the MAPICS XA transactional source data. In addition, GPS includes a development capability that allows the creation of customer views, integration to non-MAPICS systems, and the inclusion of custom MAPICS extensions. Some of the modules typically offered are

  • Customer/Product Analytics—information on sales statistics, order bookings, and shipping information.

  • Financial Analytics—graphing, analysis and reporting for general ledger (GL), accounts receivable (AR), and accounts payable (AP) information, which provides drilling between financial and supporting sales, purchasing, inventory, and manufacturing information.

  • SCM Analytics—includes inventory, purchasing, and supplier analytics from inventory trends by planner, buyer, and item to supplier performance and purchase price variance (PPV).

  • Manufacturing Analytics—focuses on schedule performance and variance analysis.

  • eDeployment—an automated scheduler of view/cube building and distribution to end users via Web server or e-mail attachments for un-tethered users.

  • Power and Business User interfaces—for authoring and analysis using on-line analytical processing (OLAP) capabilities. Also allows "dynamic" graphing and reporting that can be used untethered.

  • Extension Builder—a metadata maintenance tool used to extend and customize GPS.

  • Web Access Server browser-based option for reviewing information in tabular, graphical or .PDF format.

  • Dashboard—a front-end presentation that sits on top of CPM systems displaying key metrics and KPIs on which the company wants everyone to focus.

GPS has been integrated with IBM iSeries systems such as PRISM, JDE World, and MAPICS XA along with Oracle- and Microsoft SQL Server-based solutions such as PeopleSoft Enterprise One, Exact Progression, and AssetPoint's TabWare solutions. Therefore, GPS should be seen as a near real-time integration tool, allowing one view of data from a variety of systems, since it offers business users the power and flexibility to access the information they need to address specific business issues, regardless of where that data is stored. Business users are able to dynamically combine data from multiple sources into a single information view, without requiring IT assistance. GPS retrieves data from any open database connectivity (ODBC)-compliant data source, including ERP systems, CRM systems, legacy systems, or even Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

ODBC is a standard database access method developed with the goal of making it possible to access any data from any application, regardless of which database management system (DBMS) is handling the data, which is achieved by inserting a middle layer, called a database driver, between an application and the DBMS. The purpose of this layer is to translate the application's data queries into commands that the DBMS understands, and for this to work, both the application and the DBMS must be ODBC-compliant—the application must be capable of issuing ODBC commands and the DBMS must be capable of responding to them.

To that end, GPS' Real-time Data Integration Server (RDIS) middleware component maintains ODBC connections on behalf of the client software, enabling thin clients to provide a rich end-user analysis environment. Various enterprise data sources, including multiple ERP databases, legacy systems, or spreadsheets, can be dynamically accessed via the above RDIS server-based middleware application, whereby the information is then delivered to users in one of four flexible, fully integrated user interfaces (UI). Each of these environments is designed to support the business requirements of different types of users, ranging from dashboard users to power users. Vanguard's pragmatic approach is to ensure that users have the right functionality to accomplish their goals, with a solution that is reasonably easy to learn and use. GPS is designed for a broad range of user types, and leverages standard business processes and tools like e-mail and Web portals, with the goal to provide the right level of functionality, to the right user, in a format that will deliver real business value.

User-tailored Solutions

For example, dashboard users are typically business leaders who need to understand complex, multi-faceted business situations in a short time, and must be able to drill down from summarized displays into more detailed views, or employ the business user (see below) analysis tools to identify root causes. E-mail alerts are also available to notify personnel when business conditions change or exceed a defined threshold, while the graphical visualization of information from multiple areas lets users quickly identify trends and correlations, and obtain a uniquely detailed view of corporate performance.

On the other hand, as businesses need the ability to publish mission-critical information to their enterprise, or share it with partners, without requiring the user to install special software, the GPS Web Access Server enables the distribution of business information, reports and graphs in a standardized, intuitive Web format that requires almost no training. Internally, the web access user environment delivers timely business information to users who may not require sophisticated analytical tools or report development capabilities, whereas externally, it provides a low-cost, efficient, and secure method for sharing business information with customers, suppliers, and the entire supply chain. Web access users receive published GPS information views via a Web site, and have the ability to perform basic analysis, save reports as .PDF files, export data to other applications, and share information with other personnel. The web access users generally do not need any GPSspecific training, and require no additional software beyond a standard Web browser.

However, business users are the front-line executives and managers throughout an enterprise who need immediate access to business information to drive their decisions. Accordingly, with GPS, these users receive published information via a network, intranet, the Web, or e-mail, and then have the ability to conduct their own analysis. Business users have fast access to pre-defined shortcuts for frequently used reports, graphs, and tabular layouts, whereby filtering, printing, or exporting the content to other Microsoft Windows applications takes typically a few clicks. These users are able to easily move beyond simply viewing information to actually performing their analysis using OLAP, reporting and graphing tools—even if the user is off-line—that are intuitive with only a minimum of training.

Last but not least, the power business user has access to the full range of GPS functionality, including real-time querying, report authoring, OLAP, graphing, and analytics, and is able to build information views using standard business terminology, and bring together data from multiple sources, multiple hardware platforms, and multiple functional areas. Once an information view has been created, power business users can conduct their analysis using intuitive, point-and-click features that enable them to slice-and-dice information or drill-down into details. The integrated report writing and graphing capabilities enable users to create and share graphical representations of complex business conditions. The reports are flexible enough to match user needs, while incorporating advanced features like exception filtering and highlighting, sophisticated calculations with sub-queries, rankings, sub-reports, drill-through, and more.

This concludes Part One of a four-part note.

Part Two will discuss a demand-driven BI approach.

Part Three will look at direct access for the mid-market.

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