REVIEWER: Fred Ferguson, vice president of information services for Curriculum Associates.

BACKGROUND: Curriculum Associates is one of the nation's leading educational publishing companies, focusing on test preparation and supplemental workbooks for reading, language arts, science, math and more.

PLATFORMS: Microsoft operating system and database management system.

PROBLEM SOLVED: With over 15 product families containing over three thousand individual products and millions of recorded orders, Curriculum's information systems contain a great deal of data. Allowing departmental users to get questions answered from that data has been a challenge. The inventory and purchasing department needs information to help them monitor, report and forecast inventory. Unfortunately, the prior system's canned reports were limited, and special report requests took the IS department a few days to fulfill. Sales and marketing people previously had to scan through voluminous reports and raw data to get the various slices and views of customer information necessary for generating more business. Finance and accounting had to rely on standard reports and had difficulties obtaining ad hoc information about specific customers or vendors.

PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: EasyAsk allows authorized Curriculum Associates employees and managers to query varying types of data, just as they would ask the IS person in the past. However, now the answers come immediately without human intervention or coding. Using a client/server or Web-based application, the inventory and purchasing staff can type in complex requests such as, "What products haven't been replenished in the last two years?" or "Show stock level for all parts of the language arts family." The EasyAsk results then allow the user to drill deeper into detailed information. Automatic agents were also easily set up, allowing e-mail notifications to be sent when particular items or groups of items are at low stock levels. Salespeople now have access to customized reports that meet their changing individual needs. In addition to ad hoc queries, useful questions can be saved for others to use and for future modification. For instance, one saved query, "Show me all the schools in Houston that are using product A, but not product B," is modified easily by replacing any of the names. Direct marketing is now targeted because we can easily identify customers who fit particular profiles. The finance and accounting staff now get their ad hoc questions answered instantaneously using EasyAsk without having to know VisualBasic or SQL or needing time-consuming IS assistance.

STRENGTHS: Since EasyAsk understands our database structure and content, it is able to get the correct answer ­ on the first try! Because it understands ordinary language, we can easily give it complex questions without having to know code. Finally, integration is very simple: EasyAsk works on any platform (UNIX or Windows) with any database, and its setup is highly automated.

WEAKNESSES: EasyAsk is a sophisticated querying tool with a broad range of reporting options such as XML, HTML, spreadsheet style reports, pivot tables and a wide assortment of graphs. However, for more sophisticated reporting, EasyAsk integrates with Excel, Access, Crystal Reports and many other applications that can do a better job at presenting results. Because of its sophistication, EasyAsk typically needs to be installed by an EasyAsk systems engineer or somebody who has gone through the EasyAsk two-day training class. However, in the hands of a trained person, implementations can be rolled out in just a few days.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We were looking for a tool that would support many departments and could meet diverse and ever-changing analytical requirements. Our users needed to query our databases in an ad hoc fashion and, most importantly, get correct answers. We also wanted a certain level of security so users would only be able to see the information they are authorized to see. Finally, it was important that the solution could be rolled out quickly and that we would be able to maintain and grow the system ourselves.

DELIVERABLES: EasyAsk can deliver results in a variety of formats including XML, HTML, CSV and graphs. It can also generate SQL and hand that off to report-writing software.

VENDOR SUPPORT: The company was extraordinarily responsive before the sale, during the implementation and after the implementation. Their support staff is highly trained, competent and always helpful. The best part of working with EasyAsk is the attention and concern they've shown to ensure the success of our rollout.

DOCUMENTATION: All of EasyAsk's documentation is available as online help, complete with search capability. However, administrator training is required to fully utilize and maintain EasyAsk in the most effective way.

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