Sony puts data into the frame

Faced with a mountain of paper reports from its parent company’s mainframe, Sony’s broadcast arm set up its own database linked directly into the system, giving daily reports. By Jane Dudman

SBHD: Faced with a mountain of paper reports from its parent company’s mainframe, Sony’s broadcast arm set up its own database linked directly into the system, giving daily reports. By Jane Dudman

The UK broadcast and professional division of Sony, like many other organisations, found a few years ago that its core sales and marketing operations were no longer being adequately supported by its computer systems.

The 160 staff of the division – which sells products ranging from dictation machines to audio systems for football grounds – were using data from the firm’s central IBM mainframe. According to the division’s accounting and systems manager, Steve Shurvall, the system mainly comprised paper-driven reports, making it difficult for staff to access the underlying data.

To combat these problems, the division drew up its own IT plan. “The need for accurate sales and marketing data was the highest priority and the largest project on the list,” explains Shurvall.But any plan had to take into account the need to work with the IT department.

“We had to put our project to the IT group, and to them it was a completely new idea. They were following the general philosophy of IT departments of the past.” Although a similar type of sales and marketing project was being considered by the IT team, it took a different approach to the one now adopted, being based on users creating data and passing it on, rather than having a single underlying database.

After nine months of research, the division established that the central IT group had no software in place that would get close to what it wanted. The team already had some contacts with software company Pilot, which specialises in Executive Information Systems (EIS) – PC-based systems that enable staff to analyse underlying data. The division then evaluated Pilots Lightship EIS. The big advantage of this product, says Shurvall, is that it had the functions the division wanted for its marketing, and was easy to use.

Cost, too, was a salient factor. An offer by Pilot to provide free consultancy to help Sony build a prototype was helpful, and Shurvall says it didn’t take long once the prototype had been built and tested to sign up with Pilot for a basic minimum system.

In all, the development took a year, in which most of the effort went on ensuring that communications between the Lightship server system and the central mainframe were fully functional.

The system is now running on a series of 386 and 486 PCs, and has given the broadcast division considerably more flexibility.

Data is brought over from the mainframe daily and consists of financial details about the division’s business plus data on back and forward orders. Information can be taken across from the Pilot EIS into PC-based software, such as spreadsheets, and in line with the original specifications there are five dimensions, comprising products; customers; time; type; and variables.

Correct forecasting is also vital to the division. “Information has to be consolidated through the UK and back to Japan. If we waited for the actuals all the time, we’d be way behind. So we do a mid-month forecast and we are judged closely on that when set against both budget and actual performance.

“Major marketing decisions, that might have been made on a gut feel in the past, are now much more measurable, and we can move more quickly. If things are going wrong, we can now nip them in the bud right away.”

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