Last Thursday evening I spent the evening at Calumo's offices in North Sydney, at their Club Calumo user group meeting. After a period of relaxed conversation over pizza and drinks, we got down to the serious side of the evening - hearing some of the users talking about how they are using the Calumo systems to get a better insight into the finances of their organisations. In the case of last week, it was two not-for-profit organisations - the National Trust and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

UNSW

The UNSW team called their presentation "Dollars and Sense", and was all about the way that they used the business intelligence system to manage the finances across a distributed university finance system - where in some universities the faculties hold more power than the central teams. What they have done is to create a nimble way of users being able to get hold of data, manipulate it, perform what-if experiments - and all from the comfort of Excel. For them, it was about giving users a way to see their data from the tools they were already using, rather than forcing them to learn a new system.

The UNSW team also shared some quick stats of their business - with a revenue of over $1bn, 40,000 students and over 5,000 staff, it makes them a very significant business in Sydney.

On one of the pieces of paper handed out, Gary McLennan the CFO at UNSW, is quoted as saying:

  Our team, with Calumo's expert guidance, is delivering a platform that enables us to maximise the financial resources available to support our teaching and research priorities more effectively and at speed. The time frame from commencement to yielding real business value has been astonishingly short. Our environment is very demanding and complex; the flexibility and performance of Calumo has been excellent.  

And an example given on the day by Alister Cairns, who's the MIS Systems Manager at UNSW, showed exactly what that meant - now they can produce a completely new report in a few days when it previously took 3-6 months to get a new financial report specified, created and running. I get the impression that we're changing into a new way of doing things, when it is quicker to build systems, than it used to be to even just write the specification for it.

I've now heard a few different universities talking about how they've started to use business intelligence systems to give them a better view of what's going on. And the recurring theme is that they've had to resort to mild guerrilla tactics - to start by building a system outside of their normal systems and processes - because the existing monolithic systems have proved to be difficult to work with. It almost appears as if users and departments are trying to fly under the radar of the IT team, in case they get stopped.

As we need more and more data sources glued together, in order to manage complex, fast moving scenarios (like student load planning) then the tension - between existing monolithic data systems, and users who need to analyse data - is going to increase.

National Trust

William Holmes À Court, the CEO of the National Trust talked about "Doing More With Less", and especially about how they have built their whole system to be used by volunteers around the state, which means using the tools they were already familiar with, like email and Excel, rather than creating a completely new system. He told lots of entertaining stories, but the one statistic that stuck in my head was that weeds cost Australia $6 billion a year. That stuck in my head, because I realised if you can stick a cost on weeds, then you should be able to put a cost on anything!