NEWS & SOLUTIONSEXECUTIVE INFORMATIONSYSTEMS

Executive information systems are to many chief executive officers what "intelligent agents" are to a typical consumer. While both developing technologies hold great promise to serve, their present-day masters are not quite ready to incorporate them into their daily routines.Intelligent agents could roam the Internet, for example, to seek out and obtain recipes tailored to an individual's dietary

Executive information systems are to many chief executive officers what "intelligent agents" are to a typical consumer. While both developing technologies hold great promise to serve, their present-day masters are not quite ready to incorporate them into their daily routines.

Intelligent agents could roam the Internet, for example, to seek out and obtain recipes tailored to an individual's dietary restrictions just as executive information systems could collect key sales data by region to deliver a snapshot of the business for a food-retail CEO. However, neither party, with rare exceptions, is yet comfortable receiving and working with information that way, retailers told SN.

Executive information systems, it seems, are a little ahead of their time.

Some believe, however, that the Nintendo generation that grew up with computers may be better positioned to embrace such systems to support decision-making once it's their turn to move into the executive suite.

The promise of executive information systems is great, both advocates and detractors agree. They remain divided, however, as to when these systems will be adopted on a wide-scale basis. Among the potential benefits of decision support software tools for top level executives:

Timely data. Executives with only rudimentary computer skills can obtain -- by keystroke, touch screen or voice command -- up-to-the-minute information about business performance in preparation for a morning board meeting, for example.

Consistent data. Various top-level executives accessing the same information, presented in the same format, are more likely to arrive at consensus when it comes to critical decisions about the business.

Remote access. Traveling executives equipped with laptop computers and a modem can plug into the database from an airport or their hotel room to extract key data long after the close of business at company headquarters.

Ad hoc query capability. EIS systems enable executives to launch their own queries to gain insight into a particular business area, such as weekly store sales in a particular geographic region. Using data reporting templates, CEOs can generate their own charts and tables using colorful graphics.

"I think EIS systems will become more tailored and more sophisticated and the data available will get better and better," said Patrick Mullarkey, principal at Booz, Allen, Hamilton, a McLean, Va.-based consulting firm. He said emerging information resources -- the Internet in particular -- may be enough to whet a CEO's appetite for more information.

"What I see at the senior executive level is the desire to get outside the walls of their enterprise to see what's happening, what their competitors are doing and checking the news services," he said.

Easy access to the Internet through user-friendly commercial on-line services, as well as more frequent use of e-mail, may serve as the bridge to more advanced uses of executive information systems in the future.

"People are trying to make 'decision-like' information more predictive and more focused for two reasons: to go further into an organization and to provide support for some of the decisions that make a business profitable," Mullarkey said.

Gary Fryda, president of Mega Mart, Oak Creek, Wis., is one such executive who sees the value of information to support decisions.

"We can do a performance-by-store [report] in a matter of 15 to 20 minutes. Years ago, it took an afternoon," he said. "The calculations and the analysis are done" by computer so rather than spending time and energy on number-crunching, more time can be spent on strategic decision making based on more current data than previously available.

"The weekly report, which is a summation of the gross profit calculation, coupon markdowns and wage management, used to take a week to put together," he added. Access to the company database, retrieval and reporting tools has paid off great dividends at Mega Mart.

"[The possibilities for] what it's allowed us to do with our time are just endless."

Fryda acknowledged that he is "systems-oriented" and that may explain his ready acceptance of decision-support technology and executive information systems. However, he pointed out that today's changing business climate requires such tools more than ever.

"I started out [in the business] in 1969. At that point, to run the business you had to watch your profit and watch your payroll." Time has brought with it more complexity. "Later on, we got more products. When I started out in frozen foods, we had vanilla and chocolate [ice creams] and that was the extent of our merchandising decisions. Now we have 250 different kinds of ice cream and novelties."

Understanding the sales performance of different flavors of ice cream may fall more into the domain of the category manager, but the applications used there can prove just as valuable to the CEO who wants to keep close tabs on all business areas.

Bob Brodbeck, president and CEO, Brodbeck Enterprises, Platteville, Wis., said access to the company database has the potential to put him closer in touch with all operations. Until recently, information requests were filtered through the retailer's information systems department, but that is changing now.

"In the past, we have taken the approach of having MIS run the reports so we don't have key executives at a tube spending their time, where they are not going to be as efficient.

"That's been our past direction, but now we are in the process of going on-line more.

We are in the throes of establishing a host-support system and central database" in order to gain access to product movement data rather than rely upon suppliers to provide that information.

Brodbeck said a key application for decision-support systems falls within the realm of frequent-shopper and electronic marketing programs, in order to better understand customers' purchasing patterns. He said there's great potential in not only responding to, but also anticipating shoppers' changing needs.

As far as what type of decision-support tools he'd be using himself, Brodbeck said efficiency is paramount. "We are all under time constraints. You have to ask, 'Where is an executive's time best placed? How effective can he be? How easy is the tool to use?' "

Mullarkey of Booz, Allen, Hamilton agreed that ease of use is critical to wider acceptance of executive information systems.

"You have to make the power of the tools so compelling that they can't avoid it. I have seen, over the last few years, a surprising number of people that I thought would have shied away from technology become active and engaged users.

"They start to understand the nature of the tools and the business, and build it into their daily routine," he added. Once comfortable with the new methods, executives find they can make decisions faster.

Peter "Greg" Gregerson, president of Gregerson's Food, Gadsden, Ala., said decision-support tools have proved invaluable in electronic marketing initiatives at his company, but he's not so sure he's ready to become entrenched in the technology himself.

"I've got a computer on my desk and go into the Internet," he said, but expressed some reservations about his immediate need for executive information systems. "I don't know how much I would use something like that, however, I do think that years from now, if a CEO is not computer literate, he'll be left behind."