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Even at the highest levels of business, decision making can be a somewhat mysterious art—part rational and part irrational. But what’s clear is that the key to great decision making is the ability to synthesize the sometimes-overwhelming volume of incoming information.
Today’s frenetic and intensely competitive global technology market makes sound decision making even more complex. Business leaders must deal with a constant flux in the political and regulatory environment, a nonstop news cycle, proliferation of social channels, and an ever-changing pool of stakeholders, including investors, customers, employees, the media, and the wider community. For most companies, successfully navigating this landscape falls to the corporate affairs office. It must operate strategically, anticipate future possibilities, and use business transformations—and even disruptions—as communication opportunities.
At Microsoft, the Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs (CELA) office covers a wide swath. It is responsible for overseeing the corporate law function, corporate communications, government relations, public affairs, stakeholder engagement, and community relations. And it must guide the company and its leaders through what are often unchartered waters. CELA works at the intersection of business and regulatory issues, protecting more than 35,000 Microsoft patents, managing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of incoming invoices, overseeing the immigration process for thousands of employees around the world, and administering the millions of dollars raised and donated by the company and its employees.
The mission of CELA is to pioneer innovative solutions that advance the business, earn the public’s trust, and build the company’s enduring value. In the course of meeting this mission, it must answer to countless constituents across the business. As such, it is expected to be a source of knowledge and insight into both macro and micro trends as they apply to the company’s intersection with the wider world. People want to know: How should we forecast our spending for product development? How much revenue does a certain copyright or trademark generate? How is the company measuring against its goals for hiring women and minorities? These are the numbers that tell the story of Microsoft as a forward-leaning business and an innovative brand.
Improving day-to-day data
To gain the insights that it needs to answer its varied constituents and support the ideals of Microsoft, CELA tracks and stores a huge volume of data from numerous line-of-business applications, spreadsheets, SharePoint lists, and shadow databases that capture different project and financial details. These disparate data sources and the complexity in the number of point solutions for reporting made it difficult to deliver accurate, up-to-date business information. CELA wanted to speed the process of acquiring and integrating the appropriate data and create a platform that would allow a diverse set of users—including staff attorneys, outside counsel, financial experts, and licensing professionals—to find the data they need and easily report the findings.
To create a one-stop shop for all its business data, CELA teamed up with Microsoft IT to build a platform to consolidate and process data using Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services tabular model on SQL Server 2014. A centralized IT team uses this new solution to acquire corporate data from multiple line-of-business applications, host the infrastructure, and provide backups, hardware, and security. Because the data is now centrally stored and managed, CELA can more easily govern the flow of data, eliminate redundancy, and improve the accuracy of findings.
The new, streamlined data pipeline also allows users to avoid the sometimes-lengthy and inflexible change request process and the involvement of software engineers to fix production issues. Important financial reports that once took up to 36 hours now take only a few hours. “By re-architecting our back end with SQL Server 2014, we now know the widely disparate data we’re using is being acquired and processed consistently and is available centrally for our globally distributed users,” says Curtis Cole, Business Analytics and Insights Program Manager, CELA.
The Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services tabular model connects easily with Power BI, Microsoft Excel, and other user interfaces via the enterprise gateway to create a hybrid reporting solution that users can access themselves. With this new reporting and analytics portal, users can easily access standardized reports, analyze line-item transaction details from their invoices, open them to change filters or the layout, save their local copy, and refresh it as needed.
They can then expose the data to Power BI to create end-to-end reporting and provide analysis and visualization. “What Microsoft IT and Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs have built is rigid at the core and flexible at the edges,” says Cole, “This means the quality and consistency of line of business and corporate data are rigid and very solid, but the platform allows us the flexibility to access the data pretty much however and whenever we want.”
By bringing disparate sources of data under one roof, SQL Server 2014 and Power BI are improving the quality of the data and reducing the time and costs associated with managing it. For CELA, improved data quality equals improved productivity and decision making. Users can now quickly turn data into insights that support the most important public-facing Microsoft projects.
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