Case Study: RuffaloCODY Hones Its Analytic Chops

RuffaloCODY turned to a packaged-BI solution from MicroStrategy. The result: 50 percent growth in the last year alone.

As a provider of software and services to educational institutions and other non-profit organizations, RuffaloCODY has carved out a market-leading position largely on the strength of its analytic chops. But when its mostly custom-built BI infrastructure started to lag behind the phenomenal pace of its growth, RuffaloCODY turned to a packaged BI solution from MicroStrategy Inc.

Since then, officials say, it’s been off to the races, with 50 percent growth in the last year alone – nearly double RuffaloCODY’s previous rate of expansion. That, says CIO Bruce Lehrman, isn’t bad ROI by any metric.

BI Rip and Replace

The decision to rip out its existing BI infrastructure and replace it with a new enterprise data warehouse and a packaged BI suite wasn’t an easy one for a company like RuffaloCODY to make. To a large degree, says Lehrman, his company had to swallow its pride. After all, analytic expertise has long been one of its core competencies.

“The big issue we have is obviously the analytics of our business is really what drives profitability for our non-profit clients, so the more they can understand their data on a daily basis, the better they can use it for the purpose of segmentation [or] calling strategy, [and] the better off they are at raising money for their institutions,” Lehrman observes.

RuffaloCODY’s homegrown BI infrastructure tapped a combination of custom analytics, Microsoft Excel, and Crystal Reports from Business Objects SA. RuffaloCODY’s RFP process included Business Objects, says Lehrman, along with analytics and data-mining specialist SAS Institute Inc., but MicroStrategy made the most convincing pitch, in large part because of its vaunted relational OLAP (ROLAP) technology, he says..

“The biggest issue for us was the strength they had in the online [analysis], which allows our employees that are all over the country, all over the world, to go in and dig into the information that they want to see, as opposed to the [traditional] process of requesting reports and generating analytics on an ad hoc basis.”

In October of 2003, MicroStrategy shipped its first-ever end-user reporting solution, MicroStrategy Report Services. This product, too, factored into RuffaloCODY’s decision to go with a MicroStrategy-powered infrastructure, says Lerhman, who suggests that – as an end-user reporting tool with a WYSIWYG design environment and pixel-perfect print – Report Services was at least a competitive alternative to the company’s existing Crystal Reports solution.

“It was definitely the case that [Report Services] was attractive for us. Our first phase was to get our employees off of Crystal and using the Report Services, and that was relatively straightforward. But we do still use Excel a fair amount, but what we’ve started doing is using outputs from MicroStrategy and allowing people to take those reports, export them out, and slice and dice that stuff if they’re more familiar with Excel, so that [capability] is important, too.”

Business analysts and other power users, as a rule, often live in Excel. Nevertheless, says Lehrman, many of RuffaloCODY’s Excel-toting power users have jumped ship for Report Services, in part because that product became an even better tool with the release of MicroStrategy’s next-generation BI suite earlier this year: “We’re seeing more and more of that—when [power users] get used to the MicroStrategy product, they become more accepting of [Report Services].”

Two-Phased ROI

ROI is always a messy business when it comes to IT projects, but RuffaloCODY’s MicroStrategy implementation was premised on at least two ROI assumptions. First, says Lehrman, MicroStrategy’s ROLAP expertise would almost certainly enable RuffaloCODY to expose new pay-for-use features and services to its clients. This would help drive the creation of new profit centers for the company as a whole. Secondly, of course, RuffaloCODY planned to use the MicroStrategy BI suite for its own internal operations. The expectation here, says Lehrman, was that the MicroStrategy software would drive internal productivity improvements, as well as empower business decision-making.

In both cases, Lehrman indicates, RuffaloCODY’s expectations were – or are being—vindicated.

“Our business is so data-driven that it’s easy for us to sell it for internal use. Certainly, a lot of the things we’ve done in the past in a manual fashion have been streamlined, with not only the advent of our data warehouse, but also the use of the MicroStrategy tools,” he comments. “We’re kind of in our data phase with a couple of our masters clients right now. These are clients that use our managed services, and they’re sort of a trial run.”

Even at this early stage of the game, RuffaloCODY’s MicroStrategy-powered BI infrastructure has been a hit with external customers, says Lehrman. “We’ve met with a number of our clients and talked about what we’re doing with the MicroStrategy tools, and we’ve gotten comments like, ‘You’re years ahead of anyone else in this space,’ and ‘This is exactly what we were looking for,’” he comments, noting that adopters have also requested additional features or services. “I think what we’ve found is that everything they give them, they just want more. The more data you have, the more questions you have, and there were some data fields that we needed to add in order to get the data. We have people saying, ‘I love this, this is really helpful—now give me X, Y, and Z.”

In this respect, he confirms, MicroStrategy’s ROLAP expertise has been a key asset. In the past, almost any time a customer wanted more – e.g., more detail data, information about a relationship or an anomaly buried deep in the company’s data, for example – RuffaloCODY had to do the heavy lifting for them. “The key is the ability for them to drill down when they have a question. It used to be that our clients and our employees had to come back to a centralized group and say, ‘What’s driving this data to look like this?’ or ‘Why is this different from last year?’ Providing that data or giving them the ability to drill down to answer a specific question, that saves a lot of time.”

A Speed Bump or Two on the Raceway to Success

By many common metrics – such as driving end-user adoption and ease-of-training—RuffaloCODY’s BI rip-and-replace was a rip-roaring success. In several respects, the company did encounter a few speed bumps, however.

“The MicroStrategy pieces were probably the easiest for us to implement. Our project actually began with our data warehouse, and some of the tools we used to load [the data warehouse]—of all of the implementation issues we’ve had, dealing with those was probably the most difficult,” says Lehrman, noting that RuffaloCODY uses a collection of ETL and data-quality tools from the former Ascential Software Corp. (which was purchased in March by IBM Corp.). “We’ve had a lot of difficulty with some of the data modeling and some of the ETL tools not associated with MicroStrategy, but the analytics side has been fairly straightforward. Although we still don’t have all of the data models that we need to generate the output with the MicroStrategy tools.”

Prior to its BI rip-and-replace, RuffaloCODY’s revenues were growing at a 25 percent annual clip. In the last year alone, however, RuffaloCODY’s revenues grew by 50 percent, says Lehrman. As a result, his company is far and away the biggest vendor in its market niche, with 65 to 70 percent of overall share.

“It’s hard to point to one thing as to why our organization is growing as fast as it is. I think certainly our growth is accelerating this past year and I think it’s largely a result of the services we’ve been able to provide to our clients,” he indicates.

“We’ve been in this business since 1991 and have had a hard time gathering this information into a format that we can use to make better decisions from, so having the largest pool of annual-giving data in the world, we’re able to learn a lot more from that with MicroStrategy. The biggest piece of that is that we have a new consulting arm that is beginning to use this data for the purposes of helping the whole industry out.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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