Posts by David Gillman
Fall Season Marketing
Leaves change, the weather changes, people change…but the IBM i marketplace and its customers, in general, seem to remain the same.
Thanks to their frequency and the difficulty of getting your message through to your intended audience, Webinar marketing is a challenge in 2017. I hear from partners who have been disappointed with attendance at recent events, but regardless of the attendance numbers, the more important concern is getting those who do attend to take the next step. Webinars remain a low cost way to share product and technology information, but you need a compelling subject, not a sales pitch, that raises issues your audience will want to discuss further after the event is over.
What does continue to work in the IBM i market is good old-fashioned personal contact. Calls and in-person meetings have returned as the main way to spur IBM i customers to action. It seems that what is old is new again.
Many IBM i IT people know there are additional products or services which can improve operations, but they are hesitant to sell them internally. Having an external subject matter expert come into the office both lends an air of credibility to their internal argument and gives the IT person a reason to involve decision makers in the discussion.
We can work together to create a marketing campaign where the call to action results in lead qualification and is closely followed by a face-to-face appointment with one of our subject matter experts who will travel to your area.
Watson and IBM i
If you are reselling Watson into IBM i using accounts, I would love to talk with you.
Despite several years of announcements and advertising, Watson is still in the early-adoption stage, particularly once you step outside specific industries like healthcare. NGS has created demos and business case discussions for how to integrate Watson-produced data into IBM i-based reports. They work and they make sense to customers, but very few IBM i customers are moving forward at this point.
We get the usual excuses at first – no time, other priorities, and so on. However, with just a little probing we can attain the true reasons for most small and midsize companies’ reluctance – management doesn't know how it might gain a tangible business benefit from Watson, and the IT department isn't sure how to frame the conversation needed to initiate a project. Small, focused projects targeting a narrow business use seem to have the best chance of gaining interest.
What is working for you in selling Watson services to midsize companies using IBM i?
Many companies seeking to change their ERP application weigh the pros and cons, comparing the cost of change against the benefits of a new system. There are lots of hard costs in everyone’s numbers — hardware, software license, implementation, and customization charges add up quickly.
For many on IBM i, the cost is too high to justify the change, especially when they can stay with a proven system that continues working just as it has done for years. But for some, the benefits of a new system are worth the cost.
Those who do opt for a new system often choose a server system other than the IBM i. In that case, the experienced IBM i technician is usually relieved of his services to the company.
Inevitably, and sooner rather than later, the company realizes it has lost a special breed of IT person. IBM i people are typically more experienced and have worked more closely with the actual line of business departments than the new IT people brought in for the new system. Basically, all that valuable knowledge in translating true business needs into IT processes is gone.
That is a huge cost only understood too late.
We continue to add customers for our Qport Office utility. It is a software application which takes Query/400 produced output and automates the process of delivering the data to the business user’s Excel, Word and other applications.
With the increasing rejection of DB2 Web Query as a viable option for IBM i based reporting, Qport Office is making more sense to people as the next step for easier access to IBM i data without needing an IT person to “walk” the data to the business user’s application. It is especially valuable as a tool since many IT people at small and midsize companies spend more and more of their time NOT working on the IBM i system.
Since so many queries are written in Query/400, companies who depend on the system can use the long existing queries in new ways by letting business users get the data directly from the Query/400 report. This ability can be incredibly useful for companies that lose their veteran IBM i IT person. Business users can sample the existing queries to find reports the IT person had run, formatted and then distributed.
In machine learning, decision trees are a great algorithm family to work with business information. They are not the most precise nor are they considered cutting edge, but they are a first pass algorithm for many data scientists. Maybe in version two of a project, another algorithm family might create a better model for delivering a reliable model, but over most types of transaction or ERP data, decision trees as a class are where most data scientists start.
One of the great things for business use is that decision trees can be deciphered and understood by people. That capability lends them an air of credibility if managers and executives can look at the logic of the tree and follow how the final answer is made by tracking the tree at each branch.
It also lets IBM i programmers code the decision tree splits in familiar programming languages. Realistically, this is the only way decision trees are going to work with IBM i programs natively on the box without making calls out to other servers.
In reality, you'll want to make those calls out from your programs rather than code the decision tree. There are many reasons that go beyond just the simple work of coding hundreds or even thousands of decision points into a program. The easiest way to explain is to ask the question, “What happens when they change the model?”
It will happen. It always happens.
Many machine learning and predictive processes struggle when they encounter missing data; entire records are bypassed if one field value is missing in the algorithm. For example, in a decision tree, if no value exists for the field where the tree splits, that record is useless because the algorithm cannot say what tree branch the record needs to follow.
Most software implementations of machine learning processes get around this problem by offering the data scientist the option of ignoring missing value records or imputing a value. Often, the imputed value is used so as not to waste what is otherwise a good record. Most of the time an average, median, or similar generic value is used in place of the missing value. Null often looks like a missing value, too, and usually receives the same treatment by data scientists.
Most IBM i IT professionals are close enough to operations to know that average values across the entire database are unlikely to be good substitutes. Using domain knowledge, IBM i professionals can easily create levels or classes based on experience that better substitute for the missing values. This work is best done on IBM i before it gets to the data scientist.
Someone messaged me to point out my title of the “Green” Revolution last week might also refer to IBM i and its heritage with green screen terminal interfaces.
I think that idea is a valid and reasonable path of thought to go down this week. Machine learning and advanced analytics need real data to create meaningful and useful models. IBM i is at the heart of your real data – as in data that is really useful. IBM i contains transaction records, customer records, payment records, and other concrete data points for businesses.
While your IBM DB2 on i database probably does not store production machine sensor data, product environmental condition information, or other larger volume data flows, those same data flows almost always need to be tied to the transaction, product, and customer data from IBM DB2 on i to create useful machine learning models, advanced analytic visualizations, and so on.
IBM DB2 on i data is critical to the success of many commercial analytics projects. I wish IBM would give a nod to that heritage in its current marketing.
Good quality data is never a bad thing. For fueling analytic processes, it is a must. In order to maximize return on the investment in machine learning and predictive analytics, companies need clean data as a foundation for analysis. (My use of “green” in the title refers to making money for those outside the US.)
Facing some real facts, no one is going to do machine learning on IBM i — not going to happen.
However, for many companies IBM i holds important data which is needed for creating meaningful processes based on machine learning. Getting that data to a machine learning environment seems like a no-brainer; just extract the data and send it over. In the real world, many data fields in databases on IBM i need a little massaging to use effectively in other applications.
Big picture problems include multi-member files. Those are almost impossible for non-IBM i based tools to deal with. I have seen companies where the analysts didn’t know about a file being multi-member, so when they wrote an SQL statement to retrieve the data, only data from the first member was pulled. As a result, they wasted precious time trying to figure out the problem before they were forced to throw in the towel and talk to the IBM i people. Another common challenge is dates stored in non-date fields, or worse yet, stored in multiple fields — with one field for the century and year, another for the month, and another for the day.There are a few other pointers I will elaborate on in the next few weeks.
Descriptive Analytics on IBM i
While the term “descriptive analytics” is not brand new, it is unfamiliar to most people in the IBM i ecosystem. Despite all the hoopla surrounding advanced analytics and hot new technologies of analyzing data, old-fashioned reporting still dominates how companies interact with their IBM i databases. However, descriptive analytics is simply another way of saying query and reporting.
Traditional reporting methodologies are not sexy, but they are useful. That level of practicality is embraced by the vast majority of IBM i professionals. Relating to these people by using both new and old terms simutaneously is a quick way we have found to build trust. Being able to equate the new with old concepts is comforting to IBM i professionals who have seen the marketing spin change throughout their careers.
Supplying Watson with Data
You could not be blamed for being a little confused as to what Watson is - it is so multifaceted that narrowing on one area means you completely ignore other possible uses for it. IBM, trying its best, is messaging everything simultaneously.
Regarding our customers, a few are dabbling in some of the advanced analytic functions, but most are playing with Watson more than meaningfully using it.
Many of those who have experimented with these advanced functions have concluded that good data going in to advanced analytics is crucial (long known) and that NGS-IQ is great for getting that good data together from IBM i ERP databases.
Keep that nugget of information in mind. Getting clean, targeted data together using NGS-IQ on IBM i is easier than uploading a lot of random data and then using code on Watson to filter it.
Unlike past years, NGS will extend its travel plans into the summer for visiting customers and prospects as well as attending conferences and trade shows. We have had customers tell us that summer is a great time for refreshers and skills update sessions.
Regions we will be traveling to include the mid-Atlantic, Southern California, and the Great Lakes region.
We are actively looking for additional areas we can visit in order to start some prospect evaluations. If you would like to organize an event or some customer meetings, contact me and we can probably arrange some time for joint sales calls.
There is a lot of confusion as to what companies can do with IBM Watson. At least Watson is architected so that any system can access it by processing via program calls over the Internet. Programmers need only to communicate input and receive output to make use of Watson-based analytics.
That is the main message you hear from IBM, but it is only part of the story.
Watson is not a magic box which mystically does whatever you tell it to do. Someone needs to create procedures and analytical models that produce a result from a future input. It is not much different than creating a formula in an Excel cell that uses the value in a second cell in a calculation. In this example, Watson is equivalent to the first cell — consuming the value in the second cell to create an output. In operation, your program from IBM i supplies the value in the second cell so that Watson can process the formula. The missing key in the marketing is that someone needs to create the formula in the first place.
Certainly, the analysis is going to be done on a platform other than the IBM i, but for businesses with critical data on the i, knowledge of the existing database and the historical information are vital in making that data useful for creating analytic models in Watson.
In a recently completed survey of non-customers, we found that analysts who used Query/400 reported spending an average of 1.625 hours per day extracting, manipulating, and distributing data. We know from previous studies that people who move to NGS-IQ typically cut the time they spend on these tasks by approximately 50%.
That reduction in time is due to NGS-IQ having many more features which let analysts and business users write and run fewer queries and automate data transfers, spreadsheet updates, and report distribution. The math works out to 0.8125 hours per day in labor savings or about 10% of an eight-hour work day. Using a national average of $70,000 annual salary for a business analyst, the financial savings equate to $7,000 per year.
This productivity savings doesn't include the intangible business value and impression you make on your customers when staff members regularly have meaningful, accurate, timely data at hand.
While it’s unlikely that many companies will store their IoT device messages in the IBM i environment, it's easy to imagine most IBM i customers having systems (maybe cloud based) that store IoT message streams alongside their DB2 on i/ERP database.
While the data is stored separately, there is value to be realized from “merging” IoT and ERP data. Think about sensor data (IoT data) captured from products being used by thousands of customers. This data, once parsed and placed into a searchable format, needs to be viewed in different ways – by product, by customer, by order or install date, and so on. That product, customer, and order information is in the ERP database. Business people need this combination of data to give meaning and perspective to the IoT data.
Depending on the format and volume of your IoT data, with a little data cleansing and filtering, you could probably upload extracts of IoT data to DB2 on i. Once the extracted IoT data is there, forward thinking IBM i customers can begin to discover its business value.
2017 Marketing and Software Sales in IBM i
Despite what some have said is the worst name of any server or computer brand, IBM i is still going strong. (As you have heard many times, try adding “i” to any search and see if anything different turns up.) Fortunately, it is more effective to add “NGS” to an internet search. Give it a try and encourage your customers to do the same.
Seriously, NGS’ Business Intelligence is going strong, with great response to Web searches and ads. The Web presence is just one aspect of our marketing efforts. Our marketing plan for 2017 will emphasize Webinars for prospects and customers as well as on-site sessions with business users. We'll also exhibit at many of the regional and national conferences in the IBM i ecosystem.
For and With Partners
With partners we are always happy and available to do one-on-one discovery sessions and demonstrations, which usually lead to a proof of concept. While we can do all of these activities remotely, our travel to customers provides us many opportunities to go on site with prospects to develop personal relationships during the evaluation process. When we are in the area, we can add in a few prospecting visits with your other customers.
Partners can always drive attendance to our Webinars. We do about six Webinars per year just for prospects. Outside the general schedule, I am happy to organize Webinars with a partner. We can jointly drive attendance in your area through email and telemarketing invites along with your personal contact.
After the individual Webinar playback is recorded, it is useable for months as a destination or action in a marketing message or embedded in a website.
There are still several large conferences around the country for the IBM i ecosystem. Some of these are vendor specific while others, like COMMON, are general.
If NGS will be exhibiting at a conference in your area, we will work with you to get the message to your customers. Schedule permitting, we can hang around the area and do some prospecting meetings, too. Keep this in mind as the year goes along.
I am not the only one to say it – business intelligence is integral to enterprise resource planning.
ERP does a great job of working with individual items, transaction, orders, and so on. Getting aggregate views is generally done in current generation ERP applications, but older versions usually lack the cool, built-in reporting features (often marketed as “analytics” by ERP vendors).
Due to the steep cost of an ERP upgrade or conversion, most small and midsize companies need to keep running their current ERP system and maximize their return on investment by surrounding the ERP system with reporting and analytics software. They may not be as slickly integrated, but third-party reporting products do a better job than hard-coded reports built into the ERP screens.
With custom or “homegrown” ERP software, a reporting solution can make or break a company. Obviously, there isn't an ERP vendor to turn to, and many of the developers who originally wrote the ERP system have probably left the company. Simply deciphering the data base to run reports and to create “analytics” in the ERP is much simpler than modifying the old custom code to do the same.
This tactic can put off the need (and expense) of installing a new ERP for many years.
The item file is seemingly a simple file. Use the item number the same way as on sales orders along with the human readable description and maybe a few other fields such as color, weight, and so on. Throw in a few department or categories, too, to make summarizing easier and more meaningful to businesspeople.
Unfortunately, different industries have different ways of identifying, classifying, and describing items. There is no easy way of generalizing a single structure for covering all items that will satisfy reporting needs in all industries. Indeed, even within a single company different departments have different ways of looking at items individually and in groups.
The term "item" covers services, too. Think about the chargemaster in healthcare — basically an item master file used to bill for specific services provided. Other companies in services usually have a list of standard offerings. These are essentially item master files just like a distributor would have in its ERP as far as sales reporting is concerned.
An important point about creating an item file in a data base geared for reporting sales data is flexibility. Inevitably, the industry will change, additional divisions and departments will use the reporting, new ideas on management and sales process will be implemented, and a wide variety of other changes could occur in the company to add to the different ways items are viewed.
Additionally, item numbers will change over time. The same product coming from different vendors may have the same item number now, but will be different in the future.
There are the usual ways around this problem, such as adding additional columns or writing some logic that looks at the invoice date to find the appropriate item description. It seems like everyone can create a system that fits their company’s need if they emphasize flexibility for the future rather than perfection in the present.
In my last blog entry, I misspoke. I said there were two main entities – customers and orders – on which sales departments base their reporting. While true, the real world is a little less clear.
For most sales reporting, the most important starting point in the data architecture is the order detail table or equivalent. Sure, there are a lot of reports that will just look at customer characteristics, but those are more suited for marketing than sales use.
For true sales reporting, start with the sales.
I mentioned the detail file because it is the most important. Within ERP applications, there are often order header files which is useful mostly to the ERP application itself. Real world reporting will need to look at the detail level in order to arrive at custom aggregation and tailored analytics.
The data needed for the order detail is simple. The fields needed are broken into foreign keys and facts.
For foreign keys, the simplest ones are who, what and when the sale occurred. Roughly, that is the customer number, item number, date, and salesperson number.
For facts, companies can get a little too wild with this information. Start with the basics of price and quantity. If there is a cost or margin field, grab that, too. Getting more detail might help some people, but the vast majority of sales reporting is handled just by those basic fields.
Keep it simple to start. Too much choice takes up time and creates confusion in the minds of businesspeople.
For a long, long time NGS has worked with customers who have sales related data tied up in their ERP system without easy ways to access and summarize it. Their CRM system (using that term loosely for many companies) does not interface well with the ERP data.
Whether planning marketing strategies or conversing with customers in person, salespeople often do not have accurate information on past order history or comparisons to other customers. Running a green screen application in front of their customers is not something most sales reps want to do. Instead, many simply dodge the issue by saying they will look up order history later and get back to the customer.
That is not a good response to build stronger customer relationships.
Through the years, NGS has come up with a basic data mart useable by virtually any sales department. It takes a few NGS-IQ jobs to populate the tables on a regular basis, but the layout is easily understood by any salesperson who wants to create his or her own views and reports.
Here is the quick overview. The sales reporting data model centers on two primary entities — customers and orders. All the other tables join with these entities. Of course, using the NGS-IQ meta function also eliminates the need for any of the report authors to know what a join actually is.
Upcoming blog entries will highlight critical tables and the fields we have found vital at a wide array of companies. The discussion will not cover in-depth issues or advanced analytics. I will concentrate on the typical needs of companies who use IBM i and want more effective sales reporting on older ERP systems.
Tired of stupid buzzwords made up by marketing departments or super technical people who think everyone should know all their esoteric acronyms?
I am, too. Not that this is a new phenomenon, but I wish people would use common terms to describe IT related subjects. It just helps experienced IT people know what new technologies are and where they fit. It also helps businesspeople to better understand how different technologies affect their business.
In reality, I am not going to change the way the world works, but I can have some fun with it.
NGS created Jargon Crazy to get our customers and people we work with to say what their most hated buzzwords are in IT. The game works kind of like brackets for a current sporting event. Play along here by submitting your votes in the second round.
Interested in knowing how IBM works through the partner channel? It isn’t always straightforward for veterans of the IBM AS/400 to IBM i market.
For small and mid-size customers especially, knowing how the IBM partner channel works is vital to running on this platform. Indeed, most customers will never see an actual IBM employee — their usual point of contact is going to be the local or regional partner.
We are lucky to have had Doug Fulmer present a 29-minute video on how the channel works. Doug is a longtime IBM employee who moved a few years ago to work in the channel for a few of IBM’s hardware partners servicing small and mid-size businesses. Check out the video now.
NGS has customers in virtually every industry out there, and we certainly have our share of manufacturing and distribution customers. One increasing trend we have seen is the public display of metrics that monitor operations.
Many of our industrial customers have a large television or monitor in the warehouse or manufacturing common area used for general purpose messages to employees. NGS can supply a dashboard-like presentation that summarizes operations for display. When you use the auto refresh feature, the presentation will be populated with fresh information regularly throughout the day.
The general idea is to encourage employees, as a shift or workgroup, to do better. Our customers who are pleased with the results seem to be showing just 2-5 big numbers that show how different production lines, teams, or shifts are performing in comparison to others. (Calling out individuals does not seem to be done anywhere – thankfully.)
NGS software calculates the numbers and displays them in formats and graphs that are easy to digest. The auto update capability refreshes the numbers throughout the work day.
Every industry has its inside language that only the inner core understands. Quite possibly, IT is more that way than most other company departments. Within IT, vendor marketing departments come up with new terms constantly. A lot of these terms can be annoying to seasoned professionals.
We want to hear what bugs IBM i IT pros. What are some terms that annoy you? Send them via email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are going to collect the terms and use them in a cool contest after the start of the new year.
Navigating IBM software and hardware maintenance programs is not easy. While some things change, other parts of IBM support stay the same. Keeping up with the changes can be time consuming and is usually something that keeps dropping down the task list for most IBM i IT people.
Figuring out how support programs work with IBM i is very difficult for people new to the platform or businesspeople who manage IT departments. In order to help our customers (and others) understand what is included in different IBM support and maintenance programs, we ask an expert – Doug Fulmer of KS2 Technologies.
Doug works with companies across the country using IBM i. Before KS2, Doug worked for IBM for many years, so he has an understanding of IBM hardware and software support programs very few people have.
This video is a great educational tool for people new to the IBM i platform as well as a refresher for old hands.
New terms come up all the time for IT people. A really interesting new one is “Data Science” and its corresponding job title, “Data Scientist.”
A month ago, I did a video on data science, based on my background, education, and work in this area. There is not much in the video about the IBM i, but it is still one the IBM i IT people should view.
Really, data science is just the continuation of a long line of statistical analysis techniques. Working with large amounts of data has changed over time, with software and hardware now capable of analyzing much larger data sets faster and with easier to use software than in the past. For this reason, data science has come to the forefront of analytic terms now.
There are IBM i companies that use data science now. Often, the IBM i data is required for the analysis since the ERP system holds the relevant transaction level data. This is usually the point where the IBM i IT person comes in.
If you are that person working with others in the organization who do data science analysis but find yourself a little perplexed, watch this video to get a foundation on real world data science.
Most IT people have to interact with people from some other department in the company. And for most IT people writing reports from IBM i data, this interaction probably happens on a higher than average basis. Writing reports and creating views of data useful to business people requires communicating with others in relevant departments.
Most IBM i technical people have been working with other departments so long that talking business is normal. That is just how the system was designed to be run—with a lean IT staff that is very close to business operations.
For those individuals who are new to the IBM i platform but come from other parts of IT, this level of business knowledge might be different than what they are used to. It would definitely be to their benefit to sit down and learn a little more about business operations. Almost certainly, if they are now responsible for IBM i, then they are now responsible for the ERP, too. Supporting the ERP requires familiarity with the business processes performed by the ERP system.
I have seen some low key meetings, usually one-on-one, with key business people really helping the IT person who is new to IBM i get a handle on operations. Some of our most successful customers have informal NGS-IQ user groups that periodically meet over lunch to share ideas and cross-train each other on business and software functions. Let us know if you would like to try that, and we'll buy lunch for your first meeting.
NGS has customers that have moved their IBM i operations to outside data centers. Most seem to start with simply co-locating their server into data centers. Some go an extra step and move their IBM i processing from their own hardware to a partner's server in a partition or virtual machine. Essentially, they use a cloud service to provide the processing previously done by their on premise servers.
We speak to customers all the time who are considering such a move. In order to answer some of the common questions we hear, I spoke to one of our long time partners who moved into the cloud hosting business a few years ago for IBM i. Here is a short video where I ask the questions I hear our customers asking. Bob Kennedy of CPS Technology was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer them. Enjoy!
Personnel changes happen more often than technology at many companies. If your company has changed IT personnel from experienced IBM i people to IT people who have little background on the platform, watch this video. Afterwards, IT professionals new to IBM i will come away with a deep background and an understanding of key IBM i concepts. Watch this short video for some ideas to stimulate the discussion in your enterprise.
ERP systems are the core of your company's operation. They reflect your unique business processes, capture your most valuable data, and represent a multi-million dollar investment over many years. There will always be plenty of people eager to tell you it's time for a new ERP system, but in many cases you can dramatically improve and extend the life of your current ERP system by making a modest investment in modern business intelligence and reporting software. Watch this short video for some ideas to stimulate the discussion in your enterprise.
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