“To Pull It All Together Has Been A Challenge”
As a truly worldwide company—Vertex has operations in every continent except Antarctica—the company struggled with accessing and sharing the data stored in disparate sources.
“This is a rather diverse group,” explains Edmund Lai, CFO, Vertex Services. “And we operate through a number of individually-owned companies. So it's a vast network of entities spanning various regions.”
The company does not have a centralized data warehouse, but rather diverse, discrete applications located across the globe. Many systems, including accounting and order processing were duplicated or split between the US and Hong Kong offices.
"When the management in the US looked for numbers generated from Asia, we had to deal with the time difference issue...to wait for two days is too long."
Vertex also operates a number of different portals through which partners share data; data from this partner portal was maintained in its own discrete database.
“To pull it all together to start understanding and using the data has been a challenge,” Lai says.
Understandably, this also added time to the decision-making process.
“When the management in the US looked for numbers generated from Asia, we had to deal with the time difference issue. Also we had to wait for the number crunchers to take up all the information and process it, and make it in a meaningful way to present. And that often may take one or two days,” Lai explains. “When you have a decision where you want a rapid thing or users have a small thing that you want to check on, to wait for two days is too long.”
“It’s Going to Take Time”
Another challenge is that the primary analytics and reporting tool for the company was Microsoft Excel.
“Excel reports are static,” says Lou Smith, National Accounts Senior Manager. “I know I could hand my boss a pivot table with a bunch of numbers and he’ll understand what I’m trying to tell him—but it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Lai agrees, saying “The people we are talking to are decision-makers in the organization. When we had them look at the Excel spreadsheet, the first thing they would say is, ‘Can you make it simple and make it appear on one sheet of paper?’ And sometimes it's just impossible to present a summary with its full glory in one sheet of paper using Excel.”
Excel also did not lend itself to the iterative questioning process that leads to true insight. As a result, often decisions were made based on assumptions or educated guesses.
Smith often ran into this issue when looking at performance data in reference to Vertex’s largest customer, The Home Depot. Smith compiled two years’ worth of Home Depot advertising information to help answer some of these questions, but sharing that information with his colleagues was hit-or-miss.
"The people we are talking to are decision-makers.
When we had them look at the Excel spreadsheet, the first thing they would say is, 'Can you make it simple?'"
Another Home Depot-specific issue that Smith faced was preparing for the yearly manager’s meeting.
They walk around by district and everybody wants to know how they're doing. ‘How am I doing this year? Am I doing better than this other store?’”
Smith could request Vertex product sales data from Home Depot and analyze it in an Excel spreadsheet—but that would take days of effort. And he knew that Excel would be an unwieldy tool for trying to answer on-the-spot questions at the meeting.
Lai and his team had been considering finding a new BI solution when The Home Depot announced that it would begin sharing sales data with its vendors.
Vertex understood the strategic value of that sales data. “It helps us make decisions for what we're going to suggest to The Home Depot, and for where we should be moving our business,” says Smith.
Looking for A Better Solution
Vertex began its search by looking at the traditional enterprise players.
“Our consultants were recommending the standard software, like ‘Oh, maybe you want to look at Oracle, maybe you want to look at SAP or IBM Cognos,’” says Lai. “And I said, ‘If I had that much budget, that would be great. But to start people getting more interested I need something which has a much lower barrier for us to get over that hurdle."
Vertex next considered Microsoft, but quickly realized it would be too difficult to use for most of the Vertex users.
“Microsoft came in and said, ‘Okay, we can actually use SharePoint and Excel and start doing a lot more with your data,’” Lai recalls.
“But the thing is—to get it to the simplicity and the quick responsiveness we needed, it takes a lot of skill. And that skill level may not be present right now within our organization. I know I can buy it, I can hire somebody to do it, but to have people using a more simple solution…that’s what we needed,” he says.
Vertex’s IT contractor in Hong Kong suggested that they take a look at Tableau. Lai and his team quickly realized they found their BI solution.
“At the end we chose Tableau because of its ease of application, its nimbleness, and really—it is just very simple to use,” says Lai.
"At the end, we chose Tableau because of the ease of application, its nimbleness, and really—it is just very simple to use."
Vertex purchased its first Tableau Desktop licenses in June of 2012.
“Our first goal was the crack the diversity of our data and to try to manage it in a meaningful way, so that we can start analyzing it,” says Lai.
“Regularly now, we pull over 100,000 lines of data from various databases and blend it together. And we can form a meaningful picture of things that we have done in the past 18 to 24 months.”
Lai’s team is now working to create a data queue for its wholesale order processing system.
Today, the Asian offices of Vertex have two consistent Tableau authors; in the U.S., Smith is the primary Tableau author. All authors create packaged workbooks for Vertex leadership, who consume the visualizations using the free Tableau Reader application. They are also beginning to share analytics with some customers, including The Home Depot.
Smith and Lai expect these numbers to grow after Vertex implements Tableau Server, a project which has already begun.
In addition, Lai is working on a project to integrate Tableau with the Vertex SharePoint site.
Many of the Vertex leaders use mobile devices to consume the packaged workbooks. “That was one of the things I liked about Tableau when I first started hearing about it,” says Smith. “I know I build my workbooks with that in mind: ‘I want to be able to make this so that you can read this on an iPad.’”