Zodiac Aerospace has approximately 35,000 employees scattered across more than 100 global sites. Combine this with the fact that the company has grown via a number of acquisitions in recent years, and it’s easy to understand that there has become a disparity in how data analytics is carried out - creating a divide between different units in how things should be done.
Speaking with Norman Hussey, Director of Business Analytics at Zodiac Aerospace, ahead of Infor’s annual user event in New York this week (Infor recently acquired Birst), he explained how the cloud-based tool has enabled the company to help address order-fulfilment bottlenecks in its supply chain, enable self-service analytics across its business units, and generate reports in minutes instead of weeks.
Zodiac grew through a number of acquisitions. A lot of acquisitions over the past few years. I’m an acquired employee. That brings a lot of cultures. We have a footprint in 18 different countries, so you have the culture of the country, but then you also have the culture of the organisations and the business units you bring in.
So you get a lot of, “You want me to move to your platform? Wait a minute, I want this and this and this”. You have this friction, trying to make it productive. The challenge is the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The local business units have a pride of ownership and what you bring in (from the centre) is either not good enough, or they need to merge it with their local data source. So that’s why we said we needed something different.
Birst’s USP is that it provides a networked layer for data analytics that sits across, and integrates, a number of data sources - allowing for local analysis to take place, whilst also allowing for work to be carried out at the centre.
The problem statement isn’t that we’ve got all these different systems. The problem statement is, how can we give you as a business user owner the tools that you need to be successful? Birst allows us to do a siloed, stovepipe solution. I’m going to give you the capability and tools to do this yourself, and I’ll coach you. That’s where Birst fits that gap for us.
Working with local business units
As a result of the Zodiac Aerospace’s organic growth and acquisition activity in recent years, it formed several business units that all used multiple ERP systems. Several legacy BI systems were also in place, including a central BI platform and enterprise data warehouse. However, this approach required Zodiac Aerospace’s Central IT team to manage this complex process, serving as the central clearinghouse for reporting requests from the business units.
Hussey needed a tool that would provide self-service analytics to business units across the enterprise – thus reducing the business units’ reliance on central reporting – enabling a faster, more efficient order-fulfilment process. The solution also needed to be cloud-based, in order to support development and usage anywhere (regardless of geography).
Speaking about the selection process, Hussey said that other BI tools didn’t provide the advanced integration capabilities that Birst was able to offer. He said:
The first thing is the ability to merge enterprise and local data. The other point is about full-stack. What we mean by that is that competitors in the BI-discovery market will be very good at the visual user interface, but then when you say, how can I integrate my back-end data? They then want you to get your IT people to use an ETL tool, they say ‘you can, you can, you can’. Whereas Birst really brings all that together.
Having settled on Birst as the best option for the company, Hussey’s role at the centre now is to identify key stakeholders across the business and to enable them to support their data analysis needs locally. He said:
We play a central role in BI of mentoring and coaching. And we try to avoid duplications and the evil stuff that can happen. But we are not locking it down, because the key priority is you need to be able bring your business and you need to be able to have your tools.
I could say we have lost control - we never had control, we never intended to have it. But a lot of things are happening, when we tend to find out after the fact. That’s not evil, because they figure out how to solve the problem without having to call me about it. That’s good for me.
In terms of progress, Hussey added:
I would say we are half way there. We have these key stakeholders that embrace the capability. There are different stages of maturity. But they acknowledge that they have the tool and they don’t have to request everything, they can take care of what they need. As far as the mindset, we are there already. As far as the maturity, we are probably half way there.
But Birst is that local tool we need and we are going to watch it closely and let it grow.
Zodiac Aerospace has been using Birst for two years now and although there is still work to be done, Hussey notes that the main benefit for the company has been the speed at which local teams can get the information they need. He said:
It’s about time to market. Right now we have a slow deployment, because we are dealing with these key people learning Birst. But once they’ve got the right skill set, the time to market is very quick. Even with the current version that we are using. We had someone that was in leadership in supply chain, he said he needed to learn Birst, and so we sat down and within a couple of hours we taught him Birst with live data - to produce a report. He wanted to see his purchase order amount, by supplier, by month, and we just built it with him in a couple of hours. It does equate to cost savings, but ahead of that I’d put the effectivity.
And the biggest challenge? Working with teams to understand what they actually need. Hussey added:
The advice I would give to other companies is knowing exactly where you want to go. Our challenge is being able to understand from the stakeholders in the organisation what they’re looking for. Let’s have a conversation so that we can understand what you’re looking for, or what your users are looking for. Even when we are putting this in the hands of the user, we are not giving it to every single user, we are giving it to key people that have the ability to create content.
The Infor deal
Finally, I was keen to get Hussey’s take on Infor acquiring Birst. Zodiac Aerospace already uses multiple Infor ERP platforms. Hussey said that his main request following the announcement of the acquisition is that Birst maintains its approachable culture. Infor CEO Charles Phillips has said that Birst will remain an independent business unit. Hussey said:
Personally, I liked Birst’s can-do, small shop feel. You could get to a name and the person that knows the stuff, just by reaching out. My fear is - will Birst get diluted inside of Infor? What we are hearing is that that’s not the case and that it will remain as a business unit, which would be great. I think I would also like to see faster deployment of the things that Birst are saying are going to come out. And maybe Infor can help with that speed.