Absa is South Africa’s largest retail bank and also the republic’s biggest online banker. Barclays acquired 54 per cent of the organisation in 2005 in a £2.6 billion swoop. The company, which has 53,000 staff and 7.5 million customers, has been investing heavily in a business intelligence (BI) approach, says Cornie Victor, general manager, information management.

What is an information management division?
Some years back we defined information as a core capability of the group as a whole. Recently we merged our customer information management section and our datawarehouses into a single, separate unit to start leveraging that.

What does it do?
We get information from a variety of sources – internal and structured, external and unstructured. That’s a variety of things from documents, tacit knowledge, expertise and information we buy from the open market. There is also a range of legacy applications. What we are doing is producing a management information layer on top of all those things – which is what we mean by BI. The balanced scorecard methodology is the main way we’re doing that.

What technology helps power it?
We are using SAS as an analytical and statistical platform but we are mainly Oracle users, for the warehouse, our data marts and the BI tools themselves. Of course, it’s not about technology.
We found that we had over 30 different BI projects going on before we created the division and multiple systems to deliver them. We replaced that with a centralised approach driven by the business strategy and much more automation. For instance, we have three teams in the business units working as analysts, helping build data marts, management reports and so on.

Can you give us an example?
We talk a lot about ROE – return on equity. That’s a key business driver. If the ROE field is red that means there is a problem and we should take action immediately.
We also have some unique aspects about being a South African organisation.
Everyone here has a personal ID number that follows you cradle to grave. This helps when we are overlaying legacy information or things from broken environments – it’s much easier sometimes to link all this together, though a lot of work still needs to go into it.

What has all this taught you about BI?
I’d have to say to anyone else starting out that BI isn’t a project – it’s not something you start now, deliver in two years time and stop. Instead, it’s a business process and, as strategy changes, so must the BI response.
As a result and over time there has to be a lot of maintenance and adaptation of the system. Plus things happen: the next 9/11-like event could be reported as unstructured information on Reuters; you want to be able to respond and comment on that in the business context as soon as possible.