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August 23, 2012

Project Watch: Carphone Warehouse calls up better BI with MicroStrategy

Replacing BusinessObjects with MicroStrategy offers phone dealer a "single version of the truth"

By Steve Evans

Carphone Warehouse

Mobile phone and tablet seller Carphone Warehouse has revamped its analytics and reporting capabilities with MicroStrategy.

The retailer operates around 2,400 stores across eight European countries, including nearly 800 in the UK. IT is recognised as the UK’s largest independent mobile phone. The company recorded revenue of £4.8bn and profit of £840m in 2011.

As the company rolled out a new store format – called Wireless World, featuring live devices and interactive demos – in 2010, it decided a larger technology overhaul was needed.

Included in this revamp was the company’s analytics and reporting capabilities. Paul Scullion, head of BI development at Carphone Warehouse, told CBR he had little faith in the old platform.

"We as an organisation lacked a BI strategy," he said. "We had range of tools at our disposal, a range of legacy databases and reporting functionality but no real strategy. The only enterprise level technology we had was BusinessObjects but we were using such an old version and hadn’t got round to upgrading for so many years that we got to the stage where it would have been as much of a step-change to upgrade to the latest version as it would to start again."

The problems with BusinessObjects meant that managers would often produce "inaccurate" reports – not through any malicious reasons but simply a case of awareness about how to use the system; Scullion said that internal training was minimal. He said this meant managers would often "hide or manipulate" data in reports without realising they were doing it.

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"You had one senior manager saying one figure and another saying something different. All that does is undermine both sets of data so a decision never gets made or poor decisions are made. It was the undermining nature that was giving us a really bad name internally in terms of reporting," he said.

Carphone Warehouse decided a revamp was in order and focused on two areas that are highly reliant on reporting: sales and marketing. But rather than risk repeating the issues caused by having around 700 people producing their own reports, Scullion said the company decided to focus on giving workers access to a dashboard containing their reports.

"We wanted to rein everybody in to use subject area-specific dashboards that contain the KPIs for that business area," he explained. Now the end users access their reports through the dashboards, Scullion added.

Carphone Warehouse looked at extending its deal with BusinessObjects as well as a few other BI vendors such as MicroStrategy, Cognos and Information Builders. The were a few more niche players under consideration as well but worries about their ability to scale ruled them out quickly, Scullion said.

"MicroStrategy and Information Builders were the two we took to the final consultation. For me as a business user rather than an IT professional it was the ease of creation of high quality dashboards," he said.

"What we realised with others was that you’d have to deliver the dashboard as an IT project with a high degree of manual coding skill levels," he said. "With MicroStrategy, as long as you’ve got a robust data warehouse you can build a high quality and professional looking dashboard using their imbedded widget and the visualisation capabilities that are defined out of the box. You can give it to pretty much any body and they can produce something professional looking."

Training was kept to a minimum because the website-style design of the dashboards means they are intuitive to use, Scullion said.

Contracts were signed with MicroStrategy about two years ago, but there was a significant amount of infrastructure work needed, such as upgrading the data warehouse from Oracle to IBM’s Netezza. Development of the dashboard capabilities began during the summer of 2011 with a pilot rollout kicking off just before Christmas that year.

Full rollout then began in late January 2012 and continued one geographic territory at a time until the UK rollout was completed in March.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing however. Infrastructure issues at some branches meant there were connectivity problems but as Scullion points out that was more to do with Carphone Warehouse’s technology legacy.

The other issue they faced is another common obstacle: workers not responding to change. Some branch and area managers were so familiar with the old reporting process that they at first resisted moving to the new system. Adoption is now at around 80%, which is the point Scullion had identified as being the tipping point: once that figure was reached the old system would be switched off.

That hasn’t happened just yet but Scullion is hopeful that all workers will be on the new system before Christmas. In total around 1,000 workers are using the dashboards.

So far, the feedback has been positive. "We’ve now got a single version of the truth," Scullion said. "We used to have very disparate and contradictory reporting but we’re using the MicroStrategy rollout to achieve a single version of the truth. It’s about having consistency, from an employee in a store knowing how well they are doing right up to boardroom level."

An example of where the change has been felt is in the marketing department, Scullion explains. "They are using it to analyse our ability to retain customers when they come to the end of their contract," he said. "When you buy a contract from us, the on-going relationship is then with the network provider. So we can now engage with our customers when we know they are at the end of their contract."

"We were direct marketing them before but we were not very good at monitoring the performance of the campaigns. We would know what we were expecting a campaign to give us but it was difficult to measure. The new dashboard really shows down to network and contract length our retention rates. If we did get the info before it would have been a one-off piece of analysis that could have taken months to pull together. We’re now doing it on a weekly basis," he added.

Going forward Carphone Warehouse is looking to expand the MicroStrategy BI rollout to other parts of the business and to other geographies – pilots are already in operation in Sweden and the Netherlands.

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