Midsize IBM i Shops Find BI in Document Distribution
August 6, 2012 Dan Burger
Successful IT is judged by putting the needed information into the hands of the right person at the right time. If you can do that and create additional business process efficiencies along the way, you’re going to get along nicely in this business. Think of this as business intelligence at the report generation and distribution level. You can also think of it as business intelligence that’s not disruptive, complex, or costly.
You may have noticed there’s a tendency in the IT business to over-promise the results of technologies that have yet to prove reliability, ease of deployment, or return on investment. What is needed are products that easily mesh with your business environment–internally, within your supply chain, and among your customers.
Here’s a typical report writing and distribution problem with a solution that doesn’t swamp an IT department or evaporate a budget. Two companies that I talked with last week have worked their way through it without breaking stride. It involves customer service personnel printing and faxing documents in a process that is costly in terms of human resources and a bottleneck in terms of workflow.
At Bay Corrugated Container in Monroe, Michigan, a variety of business forms in printed, faxed, and digital formats navigate the communication channels. They link manufacturing, distribution, internal functions, and the external connections with suppliers and customers. Carl Smith, the IT programmer/analyst at the supplier of corrugated packaging materials and corrugated pallets, has found success with the following plan.
There’s been a transition at Bay from the days when all its business processes were reliant on paper forms, faxes, and the keying and re-keying of data to a highly automated system that speeds processes internally and delivers information faster to external sources. The processes have moved in the direction of email delivery, but are adaptable regardless of the delivery mechanism.
“We send around a thousand emails a day,” Smith says. “Attached are PDFs and sometimes TIFFs of spool file pricing quotations, invoices, advanced shipment notifications, purchase orders, acknowledgements, shipper information, certificates of conformance, certificates of analysis, quotations and other specialized reports. Probably half of these emails are for internal use. They deal with manufacturing processes, special customer needs, and many other things. Our company finds it useful to keep managers and supervisors informed of certain processes.”
Many of Bay’s reports are automatically emailed when a process is completed, which is great for quickly moving useful information to the person who needs it most. This fits the basic description of business intelligence. While BI, as defined by most, is associated with new ways to analyze information, its foundation is built on delivering accurate info in a timely way. This is business intelligence, not in the sense of amalgamating information in new ways, but because it is efficiently meeting the informational demands critical to running a business.
A similar circumstance occurred at Ruskin Company, a midsize manufacturer of air and sound control products for the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning market. Ruskin is a 50-year-old company based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Gerald Ogutu, the systems administrator at Ruskin, is familiar with the specialized informational requirements that exist within an IT organization that must be responsive to internal and external requests for data that could pertain to finance, manufacturing, and shipping, and receiving.
Everyone with a request for information is an IT customer and IT is responsible for delivering. Reports are customized to the person or department receiving them. Much of this information distribution at Ruskin has a history of being delivered as a printed product–sometimes as a standardized business form or a printed report. As this information delivery–or report distribution, if you prefer–has evolved, it involves converting a spool file or multiple spool files to PDFs and then attaching the PDFs to emails. Sometimes it involves converting spool files to Excel spreadsheet documents.
Ogutu says pre-printed forms are seldom used any more because of the shift to digital documents, even though in some cases the receiver of the digital document may print the information on paper and store it in a filing cabinet. The importance, he says, is delivering the data quickly, efficiently, and in a format the user prefers.
In both of the above mentioned circumstances, access to the business critical information on the IBM i platform was not the issue. This isn’t about drilling down to undiscovered data, which is what some would expect BI software to do. It’s about making the most valuable and most used information readily available. And it’s about adapting to multiple delivery methods whether they are print, fax, or email.
The IT staffs at each of these progressive companies (both are preparing hardware and operating systems upgrades this fall) modified their information distribution plans to accommodate the data-obsessed end users with the help of Computer Keyes, a document distribution software company that has long supported the IBM midrange market. Computer Keyes software has been in each of these companies for more than a dozen years, as document distribution methods have advanced.
Even though fax remains the dominant document distribution method for the supply chain and customer orders–isn’t it odd that fax receives so little attention in the press?–it’s inevitable that email, with digital documents attached, will soon overtake fax as the document distribution transition continues. Both the companies mentioned in this article have Computer Keyes fax and email solutions. And each uses the Keyes Overlay product, a PC-based design tool, to customize reports into PDF documents that are more convenient (no programming required) and easier to read.
There are other similarities between these two companies that match up with most of the small to midsize manufacturers in the United States. For instance, there is still a lot of core business software written in-house and it’s common to find programs written for green-screen interfaces. As mentioned, the use of fax is common. And many of the reports and the business documents designed for handling information were created specifically for faxing.
Computer Keyes faxing software includes the capability to automatically create reports and fax them to customers without most of the labor traditionally supplied by customer service personnel. Quotes, acknowledgements, orders, and delivery notices, for instance, were automated in this way as faxing replaced mailing as the dominant delivery method.
The same automation capabilities are built into the email software and both Smith at Bay Corrugated Container and Ogutu at Ruskin are redesigning forms–some to customer specifications and others in a generic format–as the PDF representation allows increased creativity and more convenience on the part of the sender and the receiver. The redesign, both IT pros say, follows what they already learned during the move from print to fax.
In the end, both companies are increasing data distribution efficiency by getting information to the right person quicker, which is conducive to better communication and shortened payment cycles. And the evolution continues without upsetting the apple cart.