Buying into BI

The ports sector has much to gain from exploiting Business Intelligence. Felicity Landon reports

Business Intelligence – it might sound like something for IT geeks but, according to Jake Freivald of New-York based Information Builders, if you want to introduce a BI solution, it isn’t the IT department you need to convince, it’s the business people.

If it’s going to work, there needs to be buy-in from the commercial or operational people, he says. “You need someone that understands that a lack of information is hurting them. For example, they need to cut costs, but without BI they are not going to understand where or what they should cut. They need to increase productivity, but without BI how are they going to measure productivity both before and after training? They need to know what is impacting their profitability, but without BI how can they see what is unprofitable and a drain on their resources?

“And then there’s the operational layer. It is critically important to have the right number of workers at the docks at the right time; you don’t want people standing around burning payroll dollars, or the opposite problem where you don’t have people to handle the work.”

Mr Freivald, vice president, corporate marketing, says that Information Builders has seen a real surge in demand for Business Intelligence solutions in recent years. “It has been on the priority list for companies for a long time but the past five years has seen BI getting even greater emphasis,” he says. “People know there are a lot of potential benefits and many are trying to figure out what that benefit is actually going to be. I think the ports sector seems to be a little bit more conservative, so in many cases is just starting out on this.”

Antwerp trends

PSA Antwerp uses Information Builders’ WebFOCUS software to gain real-time management information that continually impacts its business. A reporting product such as this adds a lot of value to the business process by revealing important events and trends as they occur, according to PSA Antwerp’s informatics manager, Paul Verbraeken.

Using BI supports effective decision-making, including co-ordinating workers, allocating labour, minimising costs and obtaining accurate profit/loss statements swiftly after a job finishes. “We needed reporting software that could give us complete and accurate management information,” says Mr Verbraeken. “We looked for a software product that could retrieve data from different databases and combine the information into useful reports.”

The big question, then: where do ports start in their quest for BI success? Mr Freivald says it is amazing just how much data is collected by businesses, including ports and terminals, who then do nothing with it. “We would ask questions like – who else could use this information, what other types of information would it be useful to have, what other questions need to be asked.

“In any line of business, people start to realise they have been managing by spreadsheets or intuition, and those things are no longer viable. Using spreadsheets, frequently they won’t get consistent information or it takes a lot of time to put the information together. What they want is to answer questions and have that information right at their fingertips.

“If you have a group of people putting together spreadsheets so they can answer a question three weeks after you asked it, that’s too late. People need more real-time BI and less data anarchy.”

Building up

Mr Freivald says it’s best to ‘start small but think big’. “Everyone is going to learn something as we move forward and see some information or cost-cutting or improvement in service that is of benefit to the customer. Once they start to see the benefits of BI, then you can start incrementally improving on that.

“People are used to doing things a certain way. Becoming data-driven means you are not just paying attention to what you can see, but also what you can measure and detect. It’s a scientific approach, rather than people doing what they believe on gut instinct, and often people can be surprised by what they discover.”

Rajesh Nair, director of Mumbai-based Envecon IT, says that any BI solution needs to be put into use very quickly. “Don’t get into a very long project – make it easy, simple, fast,” he says. “You can’t spend too long working up a project like this, because people will lose interest. Also, the people keep changing, the requirements keep changing, the technology keeps changing. If you can implement a project in three months, at least you get the first phase out and then everyone can see something real – and that will change the whole concept. Take too long and the enthusiasm dies off and the project doesn’t see the light of day.”

Envecon has developed a ‘plug-and-play’ system using pre-defined templates, so that when it starts to discuss BI options with a client it can demonstrate ten or 20 KPIs visually.

“I wanted to build something already available because we understand that change is a difficult process,” says Mr Nair. “We ask terminals to send some data to us so we can build a system and show it to them with their own data. We have done quite a few projects like that in Africa and the Middle East.”

For most terminals, he says, BI becomes a very big project that lasts for years in requirement gathering, data building, developing, etc. “This is one of the reasons why many are not taking an active interest in BI, although it’s a very critical business enabler.”

Data mining

Why is BI important for the ports and terminals sector? “Container terminals generate a lot of container movements related data through the terminal operating system and this data is captured in the TOS database. Now, there are ERP systems like SAP, IFS, Microsoft Dynamics and many others which are used in terminals to manage the functions of finance, procurement, inventory, enterprise asset management, HR, etc.

“With the wealth of information in the form of data available in various systems within the reach of terminals, it is still a very difficult process for terminals to get the relevant information by bringing all these data together for these various systems, for basic analysis, dashboards and reporting,” says Mr Nair.

“BI addresses all the challenges, through comprehensive indicator analysis. BI provides a powerful tool to analyse the port and terminal performance and also build a comparison of real-time events with historical performance and future targets. Port and terminal productivity deals with the efficient use of man and machine; BI provides the powerful means to measure the efficiency of these resources.”

Terminals are looking to achieve greater container throughput and looking at areas to improve their goals, he adds. “Ultimately, a BI tool can help to deliver the most cost-effective method, with the end results of reducing costs and achieving greater productivity.”

Attention-grabbing visuals work best

In a time-pressured, impatient world, simple-to-grasp visuals are more effective than reading whole texts, says Rajesh Nair.

“It becomes easier for management to see trends, where the group is going, are we reaching targets, for example. In some places, the information is displayed on giant LED screens, showing what is happening this week and this month. Visual displays grab the attention very fast; you can see the information and read it quickly, and the capacity to recall is better – and, of course, there is the option to read whole texts if you want to get more into the detail.”

He says the correct application of BI means: enabling reliable information relating to terminal activity due to centralised management of data and BI tools; delivery of rich data visualisations and performance metrics to everyone; reducing the time and effort required to prepare analytical materials; and improving the efficiency of port terminal activity management, through online monitoring and analysis of ongoing activity indicators.

He lists a few simple questions on a high level: what is my cost per move? what is my workforce utilisation per vessel or per box? how do I optimise my asset utilisation?

BI, says Mr Nair, will become a necessity. “It will become part of business; management will rely more and more on BI to give them a real-time view. There are different ways to look at BI, but those who adopt it are going to gain faster. The information is mostly already hidden somewhere; it is a question of pulling it out, looking at it visually, and using it to improve your business.”

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