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Publisher Rapidly Transforming Its Culture and Boosts Efficiency with Cloud-Based BI
HarperCollins Publishers wanted to increase its competitiveness by giving decision makers greater insight into market-research data. Previously, the company had depended on a third-party to collect and analyze the data and then report on it each quarter. With the help of Microsoft partner Adatis, the company deployed a business intelligence (BI) solution on Windows Azure in just two weeks. Employees access the web-based solution from their desks, and can view and customize reports on demand. As a result, HarperCollins has given employees’ control over market-research data, increased business insight, enhanced decision-making, sped efficiency, improved the services it can provide to all of its authors, boosted business and IT agility, and saved US$200,000.
"By choosing Windows Azure, we could deliver a BI solution in two weeks with minimal investment. If we had deployed a traditional solution, it would have taken us 6 to 12 months to get similar results."
To stay ahead of dynamic industry trends, HarperCollins needed more insight into its industry, including the reasons people chose certain authors, books, and stores. By increasing its understanding of customers, the company could also boost efficiency and deliver better, more targeted services.
To achieve its goals, the company needed its own BI solution. Before 2013, staff lacked direct access to consumer-research data. Instead, third-party firms collected and analyzed research, and then presented summaries to about 30 HarperCollins’ employees, once each quarter. Staff used these findings to make important business decisions about pricing and marketing strategies for individual books and authors. David Boyle, Senior Vice President of Consumer Insight at HarperCollins Publishers, explains, “We paid a lot of money for consumer research, but the focus was on the presentation itself. We needed to switch the model around so that we focused on the data.”
HarperCollins sought a BI solution that staff could use to analyze information independently. Because the new tool would transform how people worked, the company wanted to minimize risk in case it proved ineffective—and so sought a solution that could meet its needs and still be affordable and fast to implement.
After reviewing its options, HarperCollins decided to build its BI solution in the cloud. Boyle says, “We have different IT networks, policies, and systems in different countries. The cloud was the only way we could quickly launch a unified, globally accessible reporting system. A traditional BI solution would have taken too long to get permissions and authentication working in all of our systems around the world.”
The company evaluated cloud-based providers and engaged Adatis, a Microsoft partner with a gold competency in BI, to help design and host its solution. “We chose Windows Azure rather than in-house servers or technologies from Google or Amazon because we could get a BI solution up and running on the Microsoft platform very quickly,” Boyle explains. “Our business employees are also familiar with Microsoft tools and so the learning curve would be minimal.”
Adatis created a multidimensional data warehouse using Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Enterprise software and a Windows Azure virtual machine that features eight 1.6 gigahertz CPUs and 14 gigabytes (GB) of RAM. The developers also created an FTP site on the virtual machine where researchers post data. Each week, new files from their research agency GMI, include feedback from thousands of people about hundreds of pressing business questions. To load the data into the warehouse and ensure that it adheres to established data formats, Adatis created automated processes using SQL Server 2012 Integration Services and SQL Server 2012 Data Quality Services.
Working with HarperCollins staff, Adatis also created six standard reports using SQL Server 2012 Reporting Services and Microsoft Excel 2010 spreadsheet software. Each report filters data differently, based on one of six topics, including author. Graphs reveal peoples’ interest in the topic of the report (such as a particular book) and other information including their age, where they shop, and what media they consume.
To facilitate report access and data exploration, developers created a web-based application with the Microsoft .NET Framework 4, the Microsoft Visual Studio Professional 2012 development system, and the Microsoft Visual C# 2012 development tool. Staff can use the application to export a report into a presentation and then customize it.
By choosing Adatis and Windows Azure, HarperCollins could rapidly deploy the BI solution it needed, give employees control over data, and boost efficiency and agility.
Speeds Deployment by More Than Five Months and Saves $200,000
HarperCollins was able to get the BI solution it wanted with negligible risk. “By choosing Windows Azure, we could deliver a BI solution in two weeks with minimal investment and planning,” says Boyle. “If we had deployed a traditional solution, it would have taken us 6 to 12 months to get similar results and it would have cost us an additional $200,000 in development costs.”
Gives Employees Control over Data
Rather than basing decisions on third-party summaries, employees now make their own decisions. “With our Microsoft BI solution, every employee can pull up visually rich, easy-to-use reports right at their desk when they need insight,” says Boyle. “This ability is driving a cultural change that goes beyond using research for marketing. It’s more about how we work and how we think because now, we make our own decisions based on up-to-date information—and we use BI more often because it’s so easy to access.”
Improves Efficiency and Services
Employees are also more efficient and decisive. “It used to take months to identify an audience for a book,” Boyle says. “Today, based on the insight we get with our Microsoft BI solution, we can fine- tune an audience in a week—and we can provide this service to hundreds of authors, rather than just headline authors.”
By glancing at a report, staff instantly see the big trends and key messages in the data. They can also explore the rich story behind the summaries and graphs to better understand how factors such as age or geographic region influence sales. “We’re bolder because of our Microsoft BI solution,” says Boyle. “We can confidently say let’s not waste a penny on trying to sell this book to a ‘youngish, teenage’ audience. Instead, let’s focus on readers who are between the ages of 17 and 24 because that’s who will be interested in it.”
The increased efficiency also makes it possible for HarperCollins to provide differentiating services to authors, such as helping each one understand and connect to a larger audience. And the company can also help more readers find the books and authors that will interest them.
Increases Agility and Flexibility
By choosing the Microsoft platform, HarperCollins can easily evolve its solution to meet changing business and employee requirements. For example, at any time it can easily move the solution to a corporate datacenter in approximately one to two days. Or, it can adopt a hybrid-cloud scenario by simply migrating some components onsite, such as the data warehouse. “We're exploring making some of the cloud-based reports available to authors, agents, and retail partners,” says Boyle. “The Windows Azure cloud enables this, since we'd otherwise have trouble exposing reporting from inside our network to the outside world.”
In addition, the company can work with Adatis to easily add new types of BI for global users including on-demand custom reports. By doing so, each employee could explore data in the warehouse (wherever it resides) from their desktop and create their own reports using tools such as Microsoft SQL Server 2012 PowerPivot for Excel. “I don't believe in IT business as usual,” says Boyle. “I believe in quickly and cheaply making a big difference and then refining the solution to better meet business needs as you better understand them and as they evolve. It's as simple as that really, and this solution allows us to do that.”
By running its solution on Windows Azure, HarperCollins also has an infrastructure that almost instantly adjusts to change. Tim Kent, Co-Owner of Adatis, says, “Soon after we had deployed the solution, we needed a larger server to match demand. It was literally a five-minute job to spin down the current server, resize it, and spin it back up with more memory and bigger processors.” Such changes can also require less up-front investment. “This Windows Azure configuration costs about $250 each month,” says Kent. “To buy, install, and configure a new server would have cost at least $12,000 in addition to ongoing costs to monitor and maintain it. Having this level of IT and economic agility are some of the great advantages of using Windows Azure.”
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