We’re all familiar with the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” – the notion that each of us benefits from the skills, insights and attention of a connected community.
This concept applies within the technology industry as well. A complex business solution isn’t produced ‘in a box’ – it begins with services professionals who can unravel the different aspects of business challenges and define IT-based ways of improving productivity and profitability or capturing new revenue, and requires a combination of systems that are designed to work together and OEMs and integrators who know how to connect the components so that they deliver predictable, replicable answers to a wide range of real-world questions.
Analytics provides a fascinating case study for the importance of ecosystems in creating relevant IT-enabled systems tailored to address specific businesses requirements. At the Information Builders Summit in Reno, Nevada (June 2016), InsightaaS met with three firms – Allegis Global Solutions, Dealertrack and DMI – to explore the ways that alliance relationships work to translate the power of analytics into real-world business benefit. Here are some of the top-level findings from these discussions.
The three firms are active in very different industry segments. Allegis manages talent acquisition (both permanent and contingent) for clients in more than 60 countries. Dealertrack delivers systems to automotive dealers that streamline the sales process and automate back-end reporting, and DMI develops and delivers data-rich mobile solutions to several industries, including financial services, retail and travel and entertainment. All three firms share a determination to alter the ways that their customers’ industries operate: Allegis is dedicated to “transforming the way the world acquires talent.” Dealertrack is committed to “changing the way that people buy cars,” and DMI is focused on “helping customers outcompete by delivering end-to-end, data driven mobility solutions.”
Customer objectives and the role of analytics
One of the intrinsic characteristics of analytics is that it can be applied to multiple needs within a single environment. Analytics can deliver increasing benefit over time: a firm can adopt analytics to address one business issue, and then capitalize on investments in skills and technology by applying analytics to other challenges within the business.
Each of the three firms uses analytics to address both front-line and back-office business needs. Allegis provides essential data on workforce characteristics – such as the size of the workforce, its composition, its success in meeting KPIs, and other issues that are critical to front-line managers – while also delivering data needed to simplify (staffing) vendor management processes. Dealertrack streamlines the automotive retail experience – it has already trimmed typical deal time from 4.5 to 3 hours, and is looking to further reduce time-to-purchase – and also consolidates needed data and reports into a single portal, allowing single-location operators to see metrics on all aspects of their operations, and management responsible for multiple dealer locations to roll up and analyze key metrics. And DMI’s Chris Murphy, senior director of data driven solutions, notes that DMI is capable of “both offering insights back to customers” and helping client firms to better understand their customers.
In all cases, the benefit of analytics is not held at an abstract level – it is an intrinsic part of solving critical business problems for customers. DMI positions its analytics solutions as delivering ROI by increasing customer retention and revenue. Tim Johnson, executive director for business intelligence at Allegis, notes that “contingent labour is a tricky space;” his firm emphasizes its ability to help customers contain costs while working with the right suppliers to acquire the right talent. Dealertrack concentrates on reducing time lost to overhead activities, which translates into more selling time for front-line staff and better, more rapid consolidation of operating data in the back office. Despite their expertise in analytics, none of these firms centre their messaging on the technology: they are tightly focused on aligning their offerings with their customers’ business objectives.
Partner business objectives
One of the challenging/fascinating issues involved in looking at ecosystems rather than bilateral supplier/customer relationships is the network of interconnected motivations: several different layers of business objectives and relationships need to align to create a viable solution partnership. In addition to understanding what a firm like Allegis, Dealertrack and DMI does for customers, it’s important to identify the ways that an analytics platform contributes to the success of these partner organizations; if analytics doesn’t contribute meaningfully to achievement of the partner’s business goals, the relationships will lack the ‘stickiness’ needed to provide for long-term solution development and customer support.
The reasons given by each firm in response to a question about the benefit that they derive from partnering with Information Builders is illustrative of the different ways that a supplier/partner relationship can deliver value to each of the parties and to their mutual customers. As an example, Allegis is looking to expand beyond its current large enterprise customer base to serve SMBs. To reach a large group of smaller customers, Allegis needs to create a portal-based, replicable solution that can be deployed with minimal customization and which can be easily upgraded. To deliver on this vision, Allegis needs access to solid technology backed by supplier resources who can contribute to Allegis’s ability to deploy and support the packaged solutions.
Because it works entirely on custom engagements, DMI’s perspective is somewhat different, but it, too, is focused on repeatable solutions: code and processes that translate from one engagement to another reduce DMI’s time to delivery, increase the robustness of the solution, and improve a project’s bottom line. DMI needs a partner that is able to deliver technology that can scale to address related needs across different environments, and values a supplier’s willingness to work with them to identify and develop opportunities for replicable/replicated solutions.
Like Allegis, Dealertrack OEMs IB’s technology, embedding its analytics capabilities into Dealertrack’s automotive retail solutions. In this context, Dealertrack is most focused on the ‘behind the scenes’ relationship with a supplier – support for the development of the product and its ongoing enhancement. One interesting connection between software potential and automotive retail customer needs is in the area of predictive analytics: Dealertrack is using IB’s predictive analytics capabilities as the basis of a sales forecasting module which is of high value to customers (“every dealership wants to forecast sales, forecast the customers coming in the door”) and which differentiates Dealertrack’s system in its market, enabling Dealertrack to “integrate all the pieces,” providing a single management tool for the customer’s business.
Building a successful business relationship
Alignment of supplier, partner and customer business objectives is a necessary step in developing an ecosystem, but it is not sufficient to ensure the growth of the network. Suppliers need to invest appropriately in the people, processes and programs needed to provide operational support to the partner relationship.
What’s important to success in nurturing the growing analytics ecosystem? For OEMs like Allegis and Dealertrack, the requirement centres on technology. Chris Lacy, who is responsible for management of Dealertrack’s DMS system, points to a shared technology roadmap, observing that “Information Builders has got a good feel for where the market is going – it feels like everything they’re doing is the same thing that were doing, they’re just six months to twelve months ahead of us. They’re able to develop faster than we are.” Johnson highlights support for portals, dashboards and advanced capabilities like IB’s commentary feature (which offers insights into data trends) and predictive analytics as key elements of his firm’s technology relationship with IB.
Tim Johnson of Allegis has similar technical requirements, and expands on the importance of dialogue with IB. “They help us with design, with portals and visualizations,” he says, offering “tips and tricks” on how to take better advantage of the IB platform’s capabilities. This provides the basis for a “strong, trusted partner relationship;” Johnson believes that if he had a question about which direction he should go, he would get “an honest answer” regardless of whether this answer was “you need to do this with IB, or you need to do this with someone else.”
When a customer purchases an OEM solution, they invest in the partner’s brand (Allegis, Dealertrack) and IB plays a supporting role. When a customer invests in a solution from a service provider, though, the software vendor participates directly in the go-to-market (GTM) motion. As a result, an integrator like DMI has an expanded set of relationship requirements. Like Allegis and Dealertrack, DMI needs access to strong technology and clear technical dialogue. However, an integrator has an additional requirement for effective GTM support. DMI notes that with IB, this activity is “a little bit symbiotic:” sometimes DMI drives new opportunities for IB software, and sometimes IB pulls DMI into accounts that will benefit from the integrator’s solution capabilities. DMI has encouraged this activity by hosting “power hours” with IB reps, and has worked with IB to develop joint account strategies that combine IB’s platform features with DMI’s focus on user experience.
How IB supports partner success
To conclude its investigation into the IB analytics ecosystem, InsightaaS asked each firm to offer its perspective on how firms like theirs can work with a supplier like IB to help customers maximize the benefit of data and analytics. All three firms point to the opportunities that are unlocked when a services-oriented partner with a tight market focus works with a supplier of leading-edge analytics technology.
- Dealertrack’s Chris Lacy is succinct in describing how his firm’s IB partnership creates a ‘win/win/win’ scenario: “Information Builders gives Dealertrack the tools we need to analyze and format data; Dealertrack gives customers the ability to consolidate, understand and work with data – and then to focus on their businesses rather than on reporting.”
- Tim Johnson of Allegis offers a similar take, noting that his firm’s “knowledge of the [staffing] industry is unique,” and that Information Builders plays an important role in helping to create and expand Allegis’s portfolio of services: Allegis is “not growing our own technology,” he says, but is working with Information Builders to deploy best-of-breed analytics in an industry-relevant solution.
- DMI’s Chris Murphy echoes key parts of this theme, noting that “no one understands Information Builders [technology] better than Information Builders, and we [DMI] are very good at understanding [the customer’s] business.” This results, he says, in “getting the right data at the right level of granularity to the right people in a way that [helps them to] make a decision.”
There are two distinct markets for analytics functionality. Much of today’s industry focus is on data scientists and analysts, the ‘power user’ segment of the working population. This is an important target market for analytics product vendors, but a relatively small group in the context of the economy; as Dr. Rado Kotorov, vice president of product marketing for Information Builders, has observed, there are “20,000 statisticians in the labour force in the US, out of 130 million workers…there are 60,000 operational researchers, and there are about 2.5 million people who have ‘analyst’ in their title.”
The (much) larger opportunity for analytics is to have advanced functionality embedded in applications that can be used by non-analysts – what IB refers to as “info apps.” Most of the employees who work for Dealertrack’s customers are high school graduates with 10+ years of experience in automotive retail; this group will benefit from systems that streamline the sales and reporting process, but will not be engaged in data discovery. Similarly, Allegis and DMI are providing insights that enrich front-line activities and analytics that are important to back-office management functions, but for professionals (and in some cases, customers) who want to focus on outcomes rather than data manipulation.
This is where the importance of “a village” of ecosystem partners becomes critical. In an increasingly data-centric economy, analytics is becoming an essential component of a solution stack. The firms that create advanced analytics platforms, like Information Builders, are not positioned to develop custom solutions in market segments like mobile data applications for financial services, contingent labour management or automotive dealerships. The firms with deep expertise in these markets are not, to quote Allegis’s Johnson, growing their own analytics technology – they will look to capitalize on functionality from Information Builders to enrich applications that meet the requirements of their target markets. By aligning the interests of the firms in the ecosystem (and their mutual customers) and providing the programs required to support these relationships over time, Information Builders and its partners can expand the impact of analytics beyond the workstations of the data analyst to managers and front-line workers throughout the economy.