DHL GmbH is a subsidiary of DHL Worldwide Express, the world's largest and most experienced international air express network. The company's success traces back almost three decades, when three entrepreneurial U.S. law students named Dalsey, Hillblom and Lynn first founded DHL, naming the company by combining their initials. While searching for an alternative to the usual way of sending shipments from A to B, they got onto planes themselves and made express, door-to-door deliveries to customers. In the process, they pioneered an entirely new industry. Today, DHL Worldwide Express provides service to more than 675,000 destinations worldwide. DHL GmbH has more than 60 locations throughout Germany and ships close to 11 million packages annually, to all corners of the globe. Since its first German office was established in 1978, DHL GmbH's annual sales have multiplied substantially, reaching 410 million Deutsche Marks in 1997. Headquartered in Frankfurt, the company employs close to 2,200.
Since its inception, DHL has prided itself on providing top-notch service to customers. Doing business at DHL is characterized by a readiness to serve, and the company works hard to maintain their very high operational standards.
By 1995, DHL GmbH could see that while its information management systems had performed well and mastered all necessary tasks, they were not up to meeting current or future challenges. "The number and type of customer requirements were growing rapidly and, at the same time, information technology had advanced considerably," says Eckhard Rocher, DHL GmbH's information manager. "The globalization of markets, increasing competition and rising costs were also affecting us; we simply had to take action in order to remain competitive."
In this environment, information becomes crucially important. We recognized that we had to ensure that strategic information was made more easily available--whether from internal or external databases, archives or other sources--to every employee who needed it."
Previously developed 4GL programs used to extract data stored in the company's IBM mainframes were overtaxed; those seeking to analyze the data faced long waits due to the high volume of requests. "Anyone needing access to various information channels in writing a report, for example, had experienced the inadequacies of previously existing data structures firsthand," Rocher explains.
Escalating demand for "just-in-time" delivery of information and electronic tracking capabilities led DHL GmbH to launch a data warehousing project called IRIS (Integrated Reporting Information System). "Information about the location and status of freight has become just as critical to customers as receiving the package intact," Rocher notes.
A comprehensive undertaking, IRIS was designed to provide decision-makers in all key areas of the company with business intelligence on their desktops. In keeping with new global standards established for DHL's worldwide operations, DHL GmbH developed its plans for IRIS around use of an Informix database and Hewlett-Packard (HP) UNIX servers, together with DHL's internal DHLNET and Deutsche Telekom, a service provider for Frame Relay, a high-speed TCP/IP communications network.
"Before we chose any warehouse front-end tools, several workshops were organized," recalls Rocher. "Those involved key users from all areas of the company who arrived at a logical data model as a basis for the database design, carried out a problem analysis and drafted a specifications profile for the tools."
Eight vendors' tools were tested against DHL GmbH's prototype database; and in the final analysis, Cognos' Impromptu and PowerPlay scored best. "The decision was made easy by the fact that both solutions differed, in some respects markedly, from other vendor products from both a functional and technical standpoint as well as cost-related reasons," Rocher notes.
In selecting its tools, DHL GmbH also took into account recommendations from Gartner Group, as well as the positive experience of DHL's Dutch branch, which was already working successfully with Cognos.
DHL GmbH next created a new client/server system, which transfers operational data (e.g., on turnover and customers) at defined intervals from the host to the server level, where data is aggregated into meta data that is used in decision making. The meta data provides users with different perspectives of company business processes and employs familiar DHL business terms.
Impromptu, Cognos' data access and reporting tool, allows those responsible for various business areas--as well as specialists from the company's controlling and distribution departments--to obtain transaction-level detail in DHL GmbH's database without having to know SQL. PowerPlay, Cognos' OLAP tool, provides top management with a multidimensional view of information that is highly compressed for trend and pattern exploration and analysis.
In assessing the company's new tools and architecture, Rocher notes, "There's always a tradeoff between flexibility and performance. We continue to place emphasis on flexibility, but we're now looking at adding another meta layer to store important information that's queried often, so performance will be steadily increased."
Faster data access has allowed DHL GmbH to become more proactive in its customer dealings, enabling it to inform customers automatically of any delays due to customs or other hold ups. "For a company extremely customer-oriented--in a business as competitive as ours--that's very important.We can now react immediately to customer inquiries," Rocher continues. "For example, if a customer wants to see full shipping details for a month, a year or up to three years, we can correspond instantly. Using Excel spreadsheets and calculating shipments manually, it used to take us much longer."
With PowerPlay's OLAP capabilities, what used to take days has now shrunk to minutes; managers can explore and analyze warehouse data on the spot and customer shipments can be tracked more quickly. "While we have yet to really quantify our return, there's no question that the investment has paid for itself," says Rocher. "We're much more responsive and flexible than we were before." Evidence of the success of DHL GmbH's data warehousing initiative can be seen in the growing adoption of its IRIS system in other DHL subsidiaries.
Now that IRIS has been up and running for well over a year, DHL GmbH has had time to reflect on its approach. "Time spent up front is still key in terms of mapping out a project like this from a technical standpoint," says Rocher. "However, it's equally important to have a plan in place for integrating the solution within the business."
It's great that you can obtain information a lot faster but then the question becomes, "What do you do with it?" Rocher continues, "Unless you have a clear concept of how you're going to work with the information, you will never gain full user acceptance or have the right management attention paid to the project."
Recognizing the impact that business intelligence could have upon its operations, DHL GmbH changed gears in early 1998. "We reorganized our sales group, for example, so they could work differently and more effectively with the tools," Rocher explains. "We established new roles and changed the way that communications flow through the organization. All of a sudden, everything began to work a lot better," he concludes. "The system was much more acceptable, and we learned a lesson in the process."
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