Firm Brings OLAP Picture To Region

June 25, 2004
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GRAND HAVEN — When Andy Catlin sold his share of New York-based Microsoft Gold Partner Citigate Hudson last year, he knew he could headquarter his next company anywhere.

But Catlin’s wife, Chelly, already had decided.

“My family had summered in Port Sheldon since the time my mom was a little girl,” Catlin said. “My wife, who was born in New York, just fell in love with the Lakeshore. When we sold the business in New York, we knew we could live wherever we wanted and she didn’t want to live anywhere else, and I agreed with her.”

That’s how the region gained Ottawa Interactive Reporting and its founder, Catlin, who trained the National Football League, Microsoft, TV Guide, Reuters and Nestle Purina to use OLAP.

OLAP is a category of software that enables analysts, managers and executives to understand their firms more clearly through consistent, interactive, fast access to vast ranges of information.

Catlin had convinced his partners at Citigate Hudson that the company’s future lay in high-speed delivery of a decades-old reporting system that server advances have made increasingly practical.

His original guess was that within three months the market would change enough to allow OLAP to become the company’s most popular service. He was wrong. It took nine. But the move made Citigate Hudson one of the nation’s foremost providers of business intelligence software.

Catlin explains that business success is based on accumulating and reporting key data on which a firm makes nearly all its decisions. Unfortunately, he said, the reporting often is flawed.

First, it takes too long. For an average company, he said, closing the books takes five days to two weeks. He said OLAP can cut that to hours.

The faster the data arrive, the sooner a company can assess its performance and adjust strategy.

The second flaw in most reporting is the strength of the data itself. More often than not, he said, executive decisions wind up based on intuition — a “gut feeling” arising from experience and accumulated key performance numbers.

Catlin said OLAP allows decision-makers superior visualization of their company’s performance, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

He said OLAP is best pictured as a cube with certain values visible on its exterior. OLAP then takes slices from the cube to reveal underlying details. And if the cube symbolizes the multi-dimensional world in which the company does business, OLAP can rotate to reveal different angles, or drill down into deeper levels of detail.

For example, he explained that an airline might view its company-wide performance and determine that a certain region is achieving high demand but with little service. Meanwhile, another region is exhibiting tighter margins.

Drilling down into that dataset, he said, may reveal that service to one city that is failing. The factors in that city’s performance can then be examined and a strategy designed to make service to that city, and that region, more profitable.

“What OLAP does is prefactor every possible combination of every total of every unit of every measure across every level of every dimension,” Catlin said. “Even if there are hundreds of millions of rows, all are precalculated. Now, that brings up one of the down sides of OLAP: You have to have a really big hard disk.”

Catlin says OLAP requires a server with 10 times the capacity of the server currently housing a given firm’s database.

The question of implementation comes down to how much a company values a comprehensive understanding of its performance and marketplace around it.

Citigate Hudson designs software applications for client companies in addition to facilitating OLAP implementation.

“I don’t really want to do that here,” Catlin admitted. “There are a lot of bigger companies capable of implementing the technology, and I’m becoming very popular because I don’t want to compete with them; I want to help them.”

He said 30 OLAP software programs are on the market. He opts to customize Microsoft technology to his clients’ needs. His goal with Ottawa Interactive Reporting is to facilitate OLAP implementation with the help of partner company PM&I Consulting.

“Implementing this is actually very easy,” Catlin said. “Companies see the technology and they get excited. They see that it will change the way they do work. And again it is actually very simple. The hard part is discovering what you want to measure.”

Catlin discovered PM&I principal Bill Guest through a Business Journal ad, and in May attended Guest’s Grand Rapids Community College seminar on corporate metrics and balanced scorecards.

Catlin immediately recognized the concepts Guest was teaching as a way to display OLAP data, and knew he had found an ally to aid in OLAP implementation.

OLAP development requires both a background within IT database development and business analysis, and with Guest as a partner, Catlin says Ottawa Interactive delivers both.

Catlin, with the help of local software companies, will provide the technological expertise, while Guest will aid in identifying where interactive reporting can best aid a company.

“Some companies may not need both of us,” Catlin said. “A lot of companies will know what it is they need to measure, and others will have somebody who knows IT well enough to do what I do.”

Catlin is Ottawa Interactive’s only employee. For now, he intends to keep it that way.

“I want to live an easy life here,” he said. “I don’t want to be responsible for supporting the families of 30-something odd people like I was in New York.”

Another advantage of OLAP implementation is the ability to use more meaningful visual aids.

Besides Guest’s balanced scorecards and dashboards, an interesting example is the cube browser of the corporate marketplace developed by Citigate Hudson at www.smartmoney.com/marketmap.

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