Chris Framel, application development manager for Albuquerque's Department of Finance and Administrative Services' Information Systems Division (ISD), remembers when he spent too much time hoofing it from PC to PC installing individual Oracle clients, so department staff could access financial data.

Dissatisfied with this approach, Framel began searching for a new way departments could use and search for data. The ISD settled on Cognos' BI Series 7, a suite of business intelligence (BI) tools to gather pertinent data from a large pool of information collected from various departments over time.

Though initially difficult to define, BI technology is an intelligent approach to heaps of disparate information because it allows targeted extraction of data from a large group of data.

"We started looking at ways to get the data out to users in a more user-friendly way," said Framel. "Everybody was using Excel and Access. People were rekeying data into Access or Excel to get reports."

Because the information resided in a mainframe system, the needed data was difficult to extract. Framel and his staff typically had to use a makeshift approach to get the data agency customers needed.

"Initially it wasn't really BI," he said. "It was just extracting the data out of these mainframe files and storing them in Oracle and using client tools to go get the data. That evolved into more of the business intelligence solutions."

Intelligent Technology

BI technology offers numerous ways to extract and analyze data.

If an employee wants to see all items paid to a particular vendor last year, he or she can go into Cognos Query to extract the data, said Carol Scurlock-Garcia, accounting systems coordinator for the Department of Finance and Administration's Accounting Division. With a Web browser, users query the data for specific information by writing queries, or modifying existing queries written by IT staff, who write some queries up front, knowing the resulting reports will contain information necessary to departments.

"We create a lot of standard reports," said Framel. "Using Cognos Query, they can go out and generate their own queries on the same tables we do -- export it to Excel if they want. The departments take it upon themselves how they want to use it, how they access it."

Another benefit is that once reports are saved, they can be made available through the Cognos Upfront Web-based portal, which displays them in a series of customizable folders all users can access. This is one aspect of the learning curve that, according to Scurlock-Garcia, needs to be overcome to realize the full benefits of BI.

"That is the caveat of using this application," she said. "You have to know the tables and where the data resides to report off of it, and so it's a slow learning curve."

Because there are so many different departmental functions for staff to perform, BI technology helps employees obtain aggregate information. In addition to Cognos Query, another BI product, PowerPlay -- online analytic processing (OLAP) software -- allows users to track business performance and analyze business data by running queries and/or writing reports.

PowerPlay pulls data from relational databases to build PowerCubes, which are data sets that can contain more than 1 billion rows of data and 2 million categories. Business rules and calculations can be built into the PowerCubes. These features can be automatically delivered to Web clients, or to Windows and Excel clients, using the same application server.

"They can take a report or query we've written, or a PowerPlay cube we've put out there, filter it down just for their department or division or whatever it is they're interested in seeing, and save that as their own version of the report," said Scurlock-Garcia. "They save it to their folder or department