Companies seeking more powerful executive information systems are migrating toward browser technology, increasingly robust data warehouses and systems that give top management an enterprise-wide view of operations.
Another advance will be to make the data that is pushed to executives' desktops real-time or close to it, sources told SN. More timely information, however, increases the costs of an EIS -- the more recent the data, the more computing power required.
"The key benefit of executive information systems is they provide yesterday's results to executives so they can make more informed decisions today," said Gil Russell, chief information officer for Fiesta Mart, Houston.
Another challenge will be to make enterprise-wide systems more visible via an EIS, giving appropriate executives access to numerous databases and revealing relationships among formerly segregated data streams.
"While different executives are seeking different things, an EIS needs to link all business divisions," said John Granger, vice president of management information systems at Furr's Supermarkets, Albuquerque, N.M. "Executives need to see how store sales are connected to warehouse movement, and how that relates to how product is purchased by buyers.
"EIS should act as an enterprise system that links the company," he added. "To get the most useful answers, executives should make comparisons, and require interrogation into more than one specific application."
A key reason supermarket companies are investing in EIS is for "executives to look at the 'health' of the business through their desktops," said an anonymous source from a large Midwestern retailer. "If they come across a problem, they can drill down to a deeper level and get to the source."
With an EIS senior executives use PCs to access secured software applications that facilitate queries about company data, in order to produce reports that speed up the decision-making process.
Though most retailers continue to rely on client-server networks to deliver these decision-support tools, many companies are exploring the use of browser technology.
"Browsers are an easier way to provide critical information to an increasing number of people," said Richard Lester, vice president of information systems for Associated Grocers, Seattle. "An intranet is ideal because it is two-sided. First, it allows a reliable methodology for collecting and storing immense amounts of data, without installing additional software on individual PCs.
"Second, it provides rapid response time when individuals are querying data and gathering reports based on large amounts of information," he added.
Associated Grocers is in the process of migrating to a browser-based EIS system. By relying on Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), "there is bandwidth available to display graphics and charts to accompany data," he explained. "We can also allow executives access to more data that is stored on data warehouses, with a faster response time."
Bristol Farms, El Segundo, Calif., is exploiting on-line capabilities for its EIS systems by providing data to executives via e-mail. "You can provide an abundance of data, but it needs to be presented in a form from which value can be extracted," said James Villella, chief information officer for Bristol Farms. "We provide all executives with the ability to request data, and we e-mail the results."
Bristol's executives receive concise reports and charts on request, via e-mail. "If the executive feels he wants to explore this data further, he has the tools to drill down further to an even more detailed level. Printed reports don't provide this opportunity," he said.
Companies seeking improvement in their decision-support process via EIS need to increase the robustness and detail level of the databases that the systems access, sources told SN.
"A few years back when retailers were jumping into EIS, they were not storing operational data in warehouses and data marts, so analysis was not detailed and incomplete," said the anonymous source. "The better approach is to develop a data warehouse that is filled with granular, detailed data that can be extracted as needed, as it is relevant to specifically posed questions. This is a prerequisite for a prime EIS."
The next generation of Associated Grocers' EIS, for example, will work from a more complete data warehouse.
"We are trying to add some texture and depth to our system. By taking advantage of a data warehouse we will have the ability to answer questions with a high level of information, which will provide higher-level results," said Lester.
As executives come to rely on these decision-support systems, the speed at which information is available becomes a factor. While most companies opt to provide information from the close of the previous business day, some executives would like even more timely information.
"If they could get information up to the last hour, they would want it," said Fiesta Mart's Russell. "We do not intend to move in that direction right now because the cost of real-time data is just too expensive."
"Providing data from the previous business day is practical, but in this industry there are situations that need information from five minutes ago," said Furr's Granger.
Retailer executives tracking a short-term promotion could "investigate its penetration and make any needed adjustments," Granger said.
For example, one store may be experiencing lower levels of interest on a promoted item. Executives can query to determine what stores are seeing additional traffic and item movement on the product, and divert product to that location.
Another challenge that has hindered the great returns originally expected from EIS is that companies may have been too application-specific. For instance, rather than integrating data from a variety of store systems and compiling those results, individual systems stay segmented.
Among the areas already analyzed effectively by executives are store sales, category management, and how shrink affects sales and gross profit margins. Sources told SN that an area that could be enhanced through EIS is the effect labor has companywide.
"We can analyze trends based on our labor reports that show sales compared to man hours," said Bristol Farms' Villella. "We can look at sales in a specific department at a given minute, and know how many employees were staffed at that time.
"We are a service-oriented retailer so there needs to be a fine balance between labor and sales," he explained. "We need enough labor to manage our business and increase sales. This system helps us figure that out."