If you look at the SAS Institute home page it appears easy to identify what it does – “the leader in business analytics software and services, and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market.” My colleague recently assessed them as the multi-billion dollar business analytics supplier which I would agree. However, at the company’s recent analyst event I learned that this description only skims the surface of what it really does; even SAS CMO Jim Davis said he couldn’t be sure of the exact number of products it has (more than 200). Some things, however, are more evident: SAS is successful, with revenues up 6.7% on a like-by-like basis from last year; staff numbers continue to grow (up 2.4% from 2010 and 2011 already showing a 4.9% growth); Fortune named it one of the best places to work; customer satisfaction scores are at an all-time high; and it has enough cash in the bank to be self-funding and able to execute an extensive acquisition program, including companies such as DataFlux, which specializes in data management.

This acquisition perhaps points to where SAS is heading, and puts it in a strong position to support an approach that is as much about solving customers’ business issues as it is about selling products and services. Solving business issues is concerned with having the right information to identify a problem, analyze why it occurred and then enable action to resolve the issue – this is the process Ventana Research defines as performance management. Having the right information begins with having high-quality data that can be analyzed to identify the issue and possible solutions. As my research into customer information management shows, assuring this foundation is no easy matter for all but the most mature companies. That data is scattered across many disparate systems; much of it is incomplete or outdated; it is not synchronized across systems; and it is growing in both volumes and types at an alarming rate (some estimates suggest a doubling every 18 months).

Jim and the rest of the speakers at the SAS event addressed issues of this sort, focusing on five key priorities: analytics, customer intelligence, data management, risk management and fraud prevention. The acquisition of DataFlux and other related companies enables SAS to address the core issue of helping companies clean up their data. SAS Data Management includes tools for data integration, data quality management and master data management and services to support companies in improving the quality of their data and its availability to support activities, processes and decision-making across the enterprise. The risk and fraud applications use the core platform and add features to manage risk, identify potentially fraudulent activities and raise alerts to  take action to avert downstream consequences.

SAS Analytics includes an integrated set of tools for predictive and descriptive modelling, data mining, forecasting, optimization and simulation. Recent enhancements are centered around new and improved algorithms, high-performance data mining to speed results and operational use of analytics through the ability to create workflows to deliver results to targeted users, to move models from development into a live environment and to set business rules to guide decision-making.

SAS Customer Intelligence is a suite of several related products that I have commented on its importance. One supports the end-to-end marketing processes (campaign management, email and mobile messaging, event-triggered marketing, marketing operations, optimization, resources and performance management). Another includes customer experience, marketing mix and social media analytics. One product of particular interest to me is Customer Link Analytics which allows companies to visualize relationships between customers, measure and segment customers on their level of social influence, and thus target high influencers. This dovetails nicely with SAS Conversation Center which allows companies to separate the noise from key messages customers are posting on social media and I have already assessed that previously.

One user case illustrated how powerful the combination of SAS products can be in solving complex problems. I’m not able to share the name, but a subsidiary of a major European bank showed how it uses the products to create multichannel customer support that includes a complex array of customer segments, products and channels of communication, and that transcends business unit boundaries in the bank. The outputs not only display how customer service is performing in this complex environment but also can raise alerts and use workflows to manage the progress of customer service from one channel to another. As well as showing how the bank overcame some complex technology challenges, this case also illustrated how difficult it is to get buy-in across the enterprise for such an initiative but how perseverance and a close alliance with the CFO can achieve success.

SAS constantly reminded the audience that it is investing in its products, showing product roadmaps with many releases planned over the next 12 months. And these are not just feature updates. There are also several technology updates planned especially around the area of high-performance computing, where partnerships with Greenplum and Teradata are helping SAS scale and speed up performance of its products. The user interface is also undergoing a major upgrade to help make the products easier to use. SAS has also stolen a march on some its competitors with major investments in mobility. It has recognized that people want to do more on the move, and in response it is investing in applications for iPads and other tablet devices. Working with Rombi, SAS has developed the capability not only to display general-purpose BI outputs on mobile devices but also industry-specific applications that include innovative ways of displaying key business information I hadn’t seen before.

SAS is not resting on its laurels but is investing in its products and people to compete better with the big brands HP, IBM and Oracle. A close partnership with Accenture helps it provide services that companies need to make use of its products as they address key business issues. In my opinion SAS might have too many products for a company of its size and it isn’t always obvious where it is focused. But I came away from the event impressed with the plan for the Customer Intelligence suite and I can see how it might play a bigger role in my space in the next few years. Let me know about your experience with SAS Institute.

Regards,

Richard Snow – VP & Research Director