Digging for gold

As 2008 comes to an end, many economists predict that low freight volumes and tight margins will continue through much of 2009. In this difficult environment, each day’s decisions will determine which businesses survive the next.

When making tactical or strategic decisions, experienced fleet executives and analysts usually know what information they need. The commercial software systems they use to manage operations, accounting and other core business functions already include many reports that help keep them up to speed.

Those reports may satisfy basic requirements, but when margins are extremely tight, reporting needs change. You can build and tweak custom reports to meet specific needs, but customization may limit the information available to you and consume precious time and resources.

Companies often build custom reports with off-the-shelf tools such as Crystal Reports or spreadsheets that can pull in data from operations or accounting databases. The more advanced spreadsheet user can change the presentation of data with pivot tables, but he is still limited by this static one-dimensional reporting platform.

Furthermore, what good is a customized report that was built for a specific purpose when, two weeks later, the business environment changes? New problems require a platform that lets users ask new questions and get immediate answers. Business intelligence (BI) can provide the missing link to this reporting dilemma, with quick, responsive and intuitive research tools.

To apply the latest BI tools to the trucking industry, McLeod Software recently introduced a new service offering called the Business Intelligence Framework. At McLeod Software’s headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., database administrator Don Prentice teaches a three-day hands-on class for clients – including “non-techies” – on how to use the Microsoft Business Intelligence Toolset and SQL Server 2005 to synergize data from all of their information systems, not just McLeod products.

The Business Intelligence Framework from McLeod does not force clients to use a particular toolset, however. Prentice says the purpose of the class is “knowledge transfer” – for customers to learn to apply BI tools within their own companies. “We want to give clients the ability to observe their data from different perspectives to ensure that they are making good and profitable decisions,” says Prentice, who developed the service offering.

Class attendees learn how to build the integration necessary to pull data from any OBDC-compliant data source into one or more “data marts.” A data mart is a separate database that contains pre-processed information. Companies create data marts specifically for different user groups in their organization, such as finance or operations.

As a next step, attendees learn how to build a “cube,” a multidimensional model to analyze their data. Prentice describes a cube as a “pivot table on steroids” that allows users to ask questions by drilling down and viewing data from different perspectives. “The cube allows companies to turn data on an axis to look at data any way they want to look at it,” he says. Cubes, which typically are rendered in familiar applications such as Excel or a Web browser, can be customized to different user needs, such as creating dashboards for the operations manager and for the chief executive officer.

This past spring, McLeod Software helped Greatwide Truckload Management, a division of Greatwide Logistics Services and the third-largest non-asset truckload carrier in the United States, build its BI framework.

“With the detail and information we are able to use, we can make those decisions that are very prudent as a company – to understand who are the winners and who are not in business,” says Bob Hall, vice president of information technology.