CATEGORY: Analytic Applications

REVIEWER: James Sharrett, manager of financial planning and systems for Baker & Taylor Inc.

BACKGROUND: North Carolina-based Baker & Taylor Inc. (B&T) is starting a revolution in the way it does business. In business for more than 170 years, Baker & Taylor is a leading full-line distributor of books, videos and music products to Internet and traditional retailers and library customers. Today B&T is completing the first phase of a multiphase plan to empower decision-makers by making information available to them anywhere, anytime. We chose Web-based Comshare software for management planning and control (MPC) to get the job done.

PLATFORMS: Baker & Taylor uses Comshare MPC Budgeting and Management Reporting and Analysis modules (formerly Comshare BudgetPLUS) with Microsoft SQL Server.

PROBLEM SOLVED: As the manager of financial planning and systems analyst for Baker & Taylor, 80 users depend on me for the information they need to plan, budget, forecast and deliver a final budget to senior management for approval. The spreadsheet solution we used for years became unmanageable. We tried to coordinate information flow between users and 30 to 40 spreadsheets that were linked together. Some were five or six megabytes in size. Even the simplest change was a major undertaking, and some last-minute requests took a half-dozen people one or two days to accomplish. The time had come for an information management revolution. Using Comshare software, we are creating a management reporting and analysis system for the entire enterprise that puts general ledger and sales information in one place. Managers now have immediate access to a single version of the truth, and our detailed sales information ties back to our reported financial information.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: Instead of buying multiple packages to get what we wanted, we chose Comshare's integrated MPC solution. Its open architecture and ability to use Microsoft Excel for data entry gave us the freedom to quickly adapt the new system to our needs while providing for easy deployment, maintenance and administration over the Web. Users access one central database which contains one version of the truth. The product has presentation-quality reporting capabilities and built-in financial intelligence and analysis capabilities.

STRENGTHS: In the first phase of B&T's information revolution, Comshare was deployed to all budgeting users who formerly struggled with spreadsheets. We fully administer the application within the finance department. IT support is limited to maintenance of the network portion of the server.

WEAKNESSES: The asset- planning module does not provide a convenient means to budget projects that have cash flows across multiple periods. In order for the depreciation expense to begin at the end of the project, the project must be entered in multiple parts. This does not allow it to be viewed as a single project for reporting and review purposes.

SELECTION CRITERIA: My team and I set out to find the best solution technology could offer. We looked at Comshare and software products from three other companies. One product used a proprietary database and required the purchase of additional tools and databases to access and manage the data, thus raising the cost of the solution. Another lacked reporting capabilities from a presentation standpoint and appeared to be maintenance-intensive. Its maintenance tools were more text-based, much lower in quality than Comshare's and would have been more difficult to maintain. The third product removed direct control from the application. The vendor would build the application and send us the result. Any modifications required additional support from the vendor at a cost.

DELIVERABLES: The introduction of Comshare MPC is more than a cultural change at Baker & Taylor ­ it is a cultural revolution. We intend to give even more users including sales, marketing and service center operations managers the ability to perform detailed ad hoc analysis online so they can better manage the business. The Comshare MPC solution will help us accomplish these goals.

VENDOR SUPPORT: The support from Comshare's consultants and helpline has been excellent ­ overall as good or better than I've received on any other software. That support is crucial because of the complexities we built into our system. Comshare has always addressed our needs quickly.

DOCUMENTATION: The documentation is available online for both end users and developers. The end-user documentation is easy to understand and contains many links to additional information. The system administrator documentation is technical in nature and includes many examples and troubleshooting tips.

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