For Better Understanding, Let Your Data Tell a Story


In today’s business intelligence world, everyone is used to starting their morning the same way. They open up Outlook and double click on an email with an Excel spreadsheet of their daily sales. There’s not much that they can do with that spreadsheet. They won’t get insights into why their sales are up or down in certain product lines or divisions—it’s just numbers for the sake of numbers.

With spreadsheets, there’s no interactivity that lets you drill down and figure out areas of improvement. There’s no story there, and you need the story to help people make sense of the numbers. 

Excel spreadsheets only tell part of the story. You need to visualize data to know how to act on it.

That’s the difference between traditional BI reporting and visualized guided analytics. Guided analytics gives the user power to do more with that data. At Genuine Parts Company, I’m the director of Business Intelligence / Guided Analytics. My role is to work with the business, understand their needs, and then come back to our group to see if we have the necessary data to build the applications they’re looking for. But we weren’t always doing guided analytics. 

The Phasing Out Period

At Genuine Parts Company, we were looking to move to IBM Cognos 10. In that process, we had a lot of legacy reporting applications that we were in the midst of sunsetting. Six months into the transition, we were getting a lot of negative feedback from our business users. They said it was not user friendly and it actually seemed to be a step back from Cognos 8. 

The catalyst for this move was to reduce the number of reporting platforms we were using. Using multiple systems led to a lot of different issues. 

The first is that it was a lot to support. Having multiple systems meant I had to have multiple skill sets, but if we could get it down to one platform, that was only one system I needed to know how to support, which would make my life a lot easier. 

Stop trying to be an expert in everything. Consolidating platforms means consolidating your expertise.

The other problem was that I wasn’t the only one supporting these systems. Having this many platforms meant that we would have people who needed to support Microsoft SSRS, Cognos, and Lotus Notes. In some of those cases, we had a single point of failure. If that person left, we’d be in a bad spot. We didn’t have a backup plan. 

This search for a unified platform where we could create visualized guided analytics led us to Qlik. It had exactly what we needed. It could consolidate the disparate systems that we were using into one system. It would allow us to create a self-service platform that would empower our users to do more with their data. 

Field of Dreams

Once we made the switch over to Qlik, word got out to the whole company. It was like the movie Field of Dreams: We built it, and they came. But we built a bleacher, and we needed a stadium. We had invested this money in an enterprise guided analytics tool and they wanted to make the most of it. 

On top of that, people started to see the speed that we were moving at with Qlik. The difference with how fast we could get applications in their hands, at least from a prototype perspective, was night and day. Because of that, the whole process became more iterative versus the traditional waterfall approach. This meant we could show people more quickly what we’ve got so far and they could give feedback. That way we’re making sure we aren’t wasting time building the wrong thing. 

When building data applications, get feedback often. Don’t build the wrong thing. @Qlik

But with the increased demand on us, we were having a hard time keeping up. Thankfully, we’ve had some great help from the Qlik team. Their Customer Success Program helps us with best practices around infrastructure architecture decisions, as well as a designated support engineer who is always available to troubleshoot any of our production issues. 

In addition to the help from Qlik, we’ve also looped in a vital Qlik partner, the Axis Group. With their specialized training and deep knowledge of best practices, we’ve been able to keep pace with the increased project demand. 

For training the development team on Qlik, we utilized Axis Group. We had Axis Group be as hands off as possible—this was about teaching, not Axis Group delivering the projects. I wanted this so that when Axis Group walked out the door, no one was coming into my office saying they didn’t know how to develop in Qlik. 

From the best practices perspective, Axis Group helped us roll out development standards, visualization standards, and certification standards.  We would not be where we are without the support of Qlik and Axis Group.

Moving Faster

Now that we’re using one system, we’ve been able to transition all of our experts in individual platforms to a single unified team of Qlik specialists. That’s ten highly skilled employees who are now focused on one system. 

It also means we’re now able to move faster than ever before. That’s allowing us to get out in front of the business needs. We’re moving two to three times faster, with even more complex reporting than we had before. In only one year, we’ve implemented over 40 applications with Qlik. Last year with Cognos, we implemented maybe three. And we’re just getting started. 

With Qlik, we’re finally able to use the data to tell a story. We start with an executive dashboard and then allow the user to drill down to greater detail, whether it’s product analysis, customer analysis, or owner analysis. This enables our business users multiple ways of slicing and dicing the data. The future of business intelligence hinges on harnessing data for insightful, actionable storytelling. With Qlik, we’re ready to face that future head-on.