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Digital Transformation

Blackwoods builds the brand and the business with transformational data analytics

Blackwoods is a leading provider of industrial supplies across Australia and New Zealand.

Power drills to steel sheets, safety spectacles to gaffer tape – it’s all there. With online and physical branches it’s critical for Blackwoods to establish organisational transparency allowing staff and executives to understand what orders are being placed, to identify any backlogs or bottlenecks, and achieve clarity about customer trends and preferences.

In order to achieve that sort of window on the organisation Blackwoods is rolling out a business intelligence solution designed as a unified data management and reporting platform that gives instant clarity about the business while enhancing enterprise governance.

A two-pronged approach has one team rolling out Microsoft Power BI to deliver that transparency and enhance decision making today, while a second team is exploring how to move business intelligence analytics to the Microsoft Azure cloud to create greater organisational agility, and also form a strong foundation for the future.

Emerging technologies such as machine learning and cognitive services would take Blackwoods’ business intelligence solution to a whole new level.

Sustained success

Blackwoods is a division of the Wesfarmers Group, the largest private employer in Australia. Operating in a highly competitive and increasingly global sector, its sustained success demands efficient access to accurate and timely data.

Siloed data and spreadsheets were injecting too much risk with ad hoc data extracts being the norm for different functional teams that were open to misinterpretation, often inconsistent or incomplete, and negatively impacting productivity and customer satisfaction.

The adoption of Microsoft Power BI opens a much clearer data window on the enterprise.

Upgrading to the Microsoft Business Intelligence (MSBI) stack on a SQL Server 2016 platform, .NET application development and Power BI for data visualisation ensures a single source of truth that is easily accessible to all Blackwoods’ key decision makers.

It’s having measurable impact according to George Qiao, national analytics manager; “We have reduced the amount of time various departments spend analysing data by up to 100 hours a month”.

Employees can slice and dice data by industry, customer, category, revenue, and salesperson. “Our executives can make faster, more strategic decisions than ever before”, says Qiao. This translates into improved competitiveness and greater speed to market.

According to Blackwoods’ CEO Peter Kelly; “We are excited with the incredible results we have achieved by deploying the Microsoft BI suite to enhance business processes and customer interactions.”

Continuous improvement

Since first implementing the solution Blackwoods has been on a journey of continuous improvement and simplification, democratising access to intelligence in order to put the power of the data in the hands of the people that will benefit most.

By moving to the latest Microsoft BI platform, Blackwoods now has the analytics platform it needs to support productivity, business growth and agility.

Replacing somewhat inflexible data cubes with tabular models built using SQL Server Analysis Services has injected additional flexibility says business intelligence analyst, Rahul Bose. “The benefit of moving to a tabular model is the speed and flexibility we have been able to incorporate in leveraging critical information.”

Business teams no longer have to wait for IT to make changes, but can themselves make changes to the tabular models to meet their needs,

Also adopting SQL Server Reporting Services 2016 (SSRS), means Blackwoods now has visibility of the internal order backlog across the entire business. Previously it was difficult to ascertain the scale of backlogs or bottlenecks.

Using SSRS 2016 Blackwoods can build reports to visualise the backlog and highlight where the problems are, then introduce procedures and processes to address the backlog. “We have been able to reduce the backlog by 60 per cent in a five-month timeframe and make a significant contribution to the profitability of the business”, says Andrew Bray, general manager supply chain.

Advanced analytics

More recently, Blackwoods has upgraded to Power BI premium and SQL Server 2017 with support for Python. By moving to the latest Microsoft BI platform, Blackwoods now has the analytics platform it needs to support productivity, business growth and agility. Employees are using online learning tools from, undertaking the Microsoft Professional Program for Data Science to further enhance knowledge and build advanced analytical capability.  

It has grown its business intelligence community from one individual to a strong team of around eight professionals.

The company is also exploring how to migrate its analytics solution to the Microsoft Azure cloud which will inject additional resilience and flexibility.

It also positions the company to add in machine learning and cognitive services to the analytics mix.

The rich applications programming interface ecosystem that surrounds Azure also readies the company to action the data to automate a range of business processes, injecting additional efficiency into the business allowing it to optimise operations based on a solid evidence base.

This would also allow massive advances in customer service with artificial intelligence used to make product and service recommendations based on a much finer grained understanding of customer needs.

As a result of the digital transformation underway, Blackwoods staff and executives are keenly aware of the powerful role that data and analytics can play in the business, and of the opportunity in the near future for the roll out of more predictive and prescriptive analytics to minimise costs and maximise the brand.

“I’m excited about the innovation we are bringing to the Blackwoods business. This is only the start of our transformation journey,” says Phil Gray, CIO for Wesfarmers Industrial & Safety.