• Strategy
  • CFO IT

Intelligence Gets Smarter

A burst of innovation has made business-intelligence software more relevant to day-to-day operations.

Cendant Hotel Group, one of the world’s largest lodging franchisors, licenses more than 6,300 properties under Travelodge, Super 8, Ramada, and other brand names. To search for rooms and tour packages across this empire, customers can go to the company’s brand Websites or to those of distribution partners such as Expedia, Orbitz, Hotels.com, and Travelocity, among others. Having plenty of options may be good for business, but until recently Cendant had only limited insight into how well it was being served by those channels, or how much and what kind of business any particular channel was bringing in minute by minute. If there was a surge of interest in triple rooms in San Diego, for example, Cendant wouldn’t find out until it was far too late to adjust its display of properties or add inventory — its own or that of other chains.

And then there were the screen-scrapers. Every so often, unauthorized hotel reservation Websites would swoop in — all quite legally — and collect huge batches of data regarding room availability. “It’s easy for them to screen-scrape us and stock their shelves,” says Nick Forte, director of application architecture at Cendant. This activity might eventually lead to some bookings, but the massive spike in queries might also crush service levels for other, more important channels.

Enter software start-up Celequest Corp., one of many new players in the fast-growing field of business intelligence (BI). Cendant began using Celequest’s Activity Suite software because the product provided visibility into and metrics about a range of operational issues. Now, Cendant can better maintain service levels across all channels and learn more about what its customers are looking for, minute by minute. “If the software’s operational dashboard alerts us to a slowdown in a certain channel, we can drill down and see where the problem is,” says Forte. And the company can keep the screen-scrapers at bay with “throttling” techniques (which block specific Web traffic), because it can now distinguish, in real time, between different types of requests. Activity Suite software can also compare its own real-time analyses against historic BI data (stored in a data warehouse, for example), which could help Cendant assess one marketing campaign versus another or understand current operations in a larger context.

Real-time BI, sometimes referred to as “business activity monitoring,” “operational BI,” or “operational performance management,” is focused less on pulling reports from vast stores of data and more on pushing important findings to the right people, often before they even think to ask. As exciting as that is, it is just one of the many new ideas swirling about the BI scene right now, making this far-from-new sector more vibrant than it’s been in some time. Innovation is everywhere, fueled by venture capital and by customers who realize that, as useful as traditional BI tools may be, they are in some respects simply the foundation on which whole new schemes for monitoring, measuring, and optimizing business performance can be built.

Indeed, BI technology is undergoing substantial change, both in the scope of the data it collects and analyzes and in the range of employees who use it. BI’s reach is expanding because virtually every software application can now feed fresh data into a data warehouse or real-time data store. What’s more, some new BI software can monitor events on a second-by-second basis. No longer is BI simply looking back at what took place 6 or 12 months ago. Its focus is more and more on the here and now. And, increasingly, its focus is on focus.

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