Our Journey to Building a Data-Driven Culture at Radiall
In the early days of an organization, you’ll often grow by any means necessary. Processes and bureaucracy can get in the way of the scrappy nature needed to thrive. But somewhere along the line, you need structure. Disparate systems and processes reach a point of no return. Eventually, you’ll realize you need to develop a more intelligent, focused approach to growth.
Of all the aspects of enterprises that follow this pattern, perhaps none fit better than business intelligence. Initially, entrepreneurs only need basic reports on revenue, sales, costs, and taxes. The systems related to finding this data grow naturally as the business grows.
Radiall: More Than One Set of Baby Steps
Radiall began as an electronic components manufacturer in 1950s France. Today, we have about 3,500 employees working throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. We provide a variety of parts for the telecom, aerospace, and defense industries.
Most impressively, over the last few years, we experienced huge revenue growth. When I joined the company in 2012, our yearly revenue was approximately €200 million. In 2019, we finished with around €400 million.
While definitely positive, that level of growth has created some adaptation and scalability issues within our operation. I started my career as a financial controller around the organization's 60th birthday. While by that time Radiall obviously knew how to manufacture and sell electronic components, we all had a lot to learn about business intelligence. However, in our defense, taking advantage of data analysis tools wasn't really possible under our old system.
As I grew in my job, we began moving a little more into business forecasting. However, our data collection process was simply too cumbersome to realize the potential. This was where we really began to notice the problem.
Compiling spreadsheets was often a nightmare. Every team member had their own data system and many of them collected from different sources. Again, this system was fine for basic profit/loss statements and revenue/cost trend analysis. But, digging into the meat of the numbers to reveal budget insights or forecasting was simply beyond our grasp.
That is often the tragedy of Excel. Spreadsheets are an excellent way for a person to do basic computations. But once you start to analyze those spreadsheets, things get unruly quite fast. There is almost no ability to scale projects or search for correlations. Many companies unknowingly limit growth potential by over-relying on Excel.
Once you start attempting to work as a group using Excel, it becomes dangerous. The harder we attempted to produce valuable reports, the more we found problems with data quality. There is nothing quite like spending a week trying to study one trend, only to realize that you have been compounding errors the whole time. For Radiall to continue to grow as a complex organization, we needed to get on top of our data.
This was the point along our business intelligence journey where we realized it was time to grow up.
Hitting the Second Stride
Our first steps into analytics began with a few stumbles. However, we knew our main problem was finding a new system for tracking data and producing reports. We began by performing a proof of concept with Qlik Sense, Power BI, and SAP SAC. While each of these systems had their own advantages, nothing else we encountered rivaled the simplicity of .
Qlik’s associative engine and their embedded extract, transform, and load (ETL) capabilities are what initially set them apart. I knew we had something special when I learned the program and built a dashboard in two days. Some of the other options took a consultant almost a full workweek for an interface with similar functions. This intuitive design impressed many of my colleagues who were concerned about building a system that was actually usable.
Suddenly, the conversation changed. We were complete amateurs when it came to business intelligence. The idea of finding a product that allowed us to build our own dashboards showed we could adapt and scale the software as we learned. Given that Qlik Sense was also incredibly flexible, it meant we could use the software for almost any purpose we needed.
We could build operational dashboards for everyday reports. We built data discovery dashboards to investigate the possibility of finding new insights from existing information. Right out of the box, we found the dashboard tools much more interactive than any of the competition. When it comes to its simplicity and interactivity, Qlik is the best data solution on the market.
Addressing data quality issues was also easy. Clicking a few buttons would allow us to discover and correct data errors quickly. Since we were just beginning our data analysis journey, it was critical to make sure we started with factual information.
Start with Your Needs
We began implementing Qlik by understanding the needs of our different teams. This data initiative would truly be company-wide, impacting ten departments. Thankfully, being financial controllers, we largely understood the needs of our various stakeholders. And since everyone had reporting issues, they were all eager to get their Qlik dashboards.
We prioritized business-oriented dashboards. We focused on those existing reporting challenges—that probably made up 80% of our time—but made sure to leave time for ad-hoc requests. As we discovered more and more reporting needs, we kept seeing opportunities for us to have an impact with Qlik.
Quickly, we realized this was only the tip of the iceberg. We discovered that we could do so much more with Qlik Sense than analyzing standard department KPIs. Those were important, of course, but the impact of these dashboards could go well beyond those basic reports.
Unfortunately, things became a bit of a mess since no one can do everything at once. But the good news is that it’s easy to develop even complex dashboards with Qlik. Rapidly, we could whip up a dashboard if the old processes were truly inhibiting someone’s work.
Awakening to Data Literacy
While we’re still in the earlier phases of this company-wide initiative, we’re already starting to see some promise. Our budgeting team was overjoyed that the new dashboard saved them days of work. Reports that used to take almost a whole month could now be completed in a workweek. Personally, for 2020, I set a goal to reduce the time spent on reports by a full day each month. What could you do with twelve extra days of work each year?
Our productivity gains increased significantly due to the shorter reporting and planning production lead time. The shared control of the database between IT and financial staff gave us a faster ability to adapt to changing environments.
While Qlik is starting to allow us to transform our approach to business intelligence, a major focal point of ours will be data literacy. While teaching data literacy and curiosity can be incredibly difficult, providing people with the ability to answer questions is a good step.
Without that genuine sense of wonder for what we can learn from the data, we can never truly maximize the potential of business intelligence. That is perhaps the slowest frontier to conquer. Changing our systems and data collection tools is relatively easy compared to changing human minds. Qlik is powerful, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t get people to use it.
For now, we find that having data heroes within our company to be a tremendous sense of hope. These heroes fully embraced the potential of learning to analyze data for use within each of their own units. As one of these heroes, I can personally say it has completely changed the role of the financial controller. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of the tools at my disposal.
More Than Just a Tool
Qlik Sense is much more than just a simple business intelligence tool. Qlik has almost everything you need all in one package and it’s a great fit regardless of the size of your organization or databases.
On top of the product itself, the team behind Qlik has been wonderful. Qlik works consistently to improve every detail of the software. But these improvements are made in concert with customers. Today, I’m a Qlik Luminary, which means I have the opportunity to personally interact with Qlik research and development staff, but I also felt this way before I was part of the Luminary program. The team genuinely wants to hear from customers to evolve their product to the ever-changing demands of our industry.
Now, nearly every time someone comes to me with a data question, I turn to Qlik. I no longer use Excel in those instances, since Qlik Sense is much more powerful. The next step is getting everyone else to take this approach. This is how we'll scale the data side of our business. Excel won’t take Radiall to the next level, but we now have the data pillars in place.
Eight years ago, I would never have considered creative discovery to be part of my job responsibilities as financial control. However, sometimes the journey takes you to unexpected places.