Executive information systems vendors have been treated with a certain stand-offish friendliness by the rest of the industry. With their grand designs for desktop to show all the valuable information in a company, every installation costing well into six figures with perhaps six clients, the message was clear: these people are not like us.
Well now they are. The changes on the desktop: multimedia, Lotus Notes, the Internet and changes in business structure, have all brought executive information systems (EIS) into the mainstream. Now EIS stands less for executive information system than it does for enterprise information system (see box, Page 44). Instead of being given to the very few as the computerised equivalent of a key to the executive washroom, the flattening of the organisation has placed the need for EIS on the desktops of what used to be called middle management. Empowering managers has also dragged the EIS into the open.
This has in turn created a different type of EIS. When a reference user for EIS used to be Lord King (rumour has it his PA was the real user), it was easy to custom-develop a single interface giving one type of high-level information. With a number of managers needing EIS, there is no one desktop-fits-all solution. The EIS has to be flexible.
The old-style EIS could have a PC dedicated to it, but the new model resides on a PC that is also used for the standard business applications. Forcing EIS to co-exist with standard applications has proved to be an opportunity, bringing the abilities of technologies like Lotus Notes and the World Wide Web to bear. It has also created a new demand for data access that mimics the desire for large data warehouses to provide customer information, and uses the same multidimensional database technology.
The result is that now the reseller is an essential part of the EIS channel. There are few companies that can provide this level of integration outside the reseller channel.
Not that EIS dinosaurs have been asleep at the wheel during this industry transformation. Comshare, the mother and father of all EIS companies, is an example. Its Commander EIS product has been on the market for a decade and has a user base of around 1,000 companies. It claims 50 per cent of the worldwide market, but is aware that EIS is a moveable feast these days.
'Comshare has changed over the last 18 months,' says marketing director Michael Coveney in response to the dinosaur accusations. 'Until then, we were a technology company. Now we are driven by applications - we're a decision-support company.' Comshare's latest blueprint for Commander EIS involves opening up the system, using connectivity to multidimensional database Essbase and a Windows interface. This coincides with the company opening up its strategy to embrace market sectors; selling standardised products into vertical markets.
'We have applications for the finance sector, the retail market, and are about to launch a new set of applications for FMCG markets,' explains Coveney, adding that the vertical market focus is an essential feature of Comshare's future.
Functionality has changed too. EIS has often been criticised in the past for being a redundant technology, for telling users things that have already happened. One critic likened running a company using EIS to steering a ship by its wake, and so EIS vendors have responded with more time-critical applications.
Comshare introduced Detect and Alert software agents last year, which act as Gobots, searching flagged databases for essential information and displaying stories in a newspaper-like format. As well as searching news stories, the agents can monitor Olap databases or Lotus Notes data.
Finally, Comshare has taken much of the effort out of designing the queries that are needed. By designing the interface, the software automatically designs the multidimensional Essbase application and will serve up the data, shortening the development cycle and opening up new possibilities - not least a number of specialised EIS desktops at the departmental level. 'Our process for developing applications today is not to say,
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