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Health Insurer Helps Business Users Visualize Big Data

UnitedHealthcare rolls out Tableau Software's big data business intelligence tool, and the only thing business users want is more.

Like many global enterprises, UnitedHealthcare sought a user-friendly way for business users to unlock business intelligence. "We sought a self-service tool that would remove our group as the middleman in order to reduce bottlenecks," recalls Paul Lilford, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based health insurer's director of enterprise performance management and business intelligence.

Early in 2009 Lilford's team began the multiyear project by evaluating about 20 vendors. According to Lilford,Tableau Software (Seattle) quickly stood out. "Since we own so many different kinds of business intelligence applications, getting a tool that gave users a common look and feel, as well as guided them through the analytics process, was key," Lilford explains, adding, "The richness of Tableau's out-of-the-box visualizations was impressive."

After a short desktop pilot, UnitedHealthcare, a division of UnitedHealth Group (Minnetonka, Minn.; $73 billion in total assets), integrated the Tableau Server big data analytics visualization tool into its existing IT infrastructure, Lilford says, noting that "Tableau didn't require any additional hardware investments." Tableau dashboards, he reports, sit on top of complex infrastructures, leveraging Tableau's capabilities to present users with familiar interfaces, such as Microsoft-enabled reports.

"As users interact with Tableau, they're launching other technologies," explains Lilford. "But users don't have to understand how to launch any of the tools to get an in-context drill that steps down the detail as they go. Users interact with multiple databases without even knowing it, and the drill path is completely auditable."

The first rollout occurred in spring 2009, targeting 400 users who work with UnitedHealthcare's distribution partners and independent brokers. "In about a week, we had approximately 100 Tableau users," Lilford says. "At the end of six weeks, we had all 400 users on the tool."

Over the next three years rollouts to successive units continued, including three in the first half of 2012. Despite adding several thousand employees to the platform, administration has remained minimal, Lilford notes. "Tableau is the easiest software I maintain," he reports. "I spend less than an hour a month on its environment."

[What's The Big Deal About Big Data?]

Organizational hurdles, however, were higher. "People were so accustomed to business intelligence being difficult, they just accepted it," Lilford relates. "The agility provided by Tableau isn't believed the first time we demonstrate it to a new group."

According to Lilford, strategies to shift the expectations paradigm include monthly user group webinars and a "try before you buy" approach. "We usually approach a new group using the pilot concept; typically, pilots turn into production very quickly," Lilford says. "Also, whenever we allocate a license to a user for a pilot, we tell them we'll give the license to someone else if they don't like Tableau. To date, we've never received a license back from anyone who has tried it."

As for downsides to the solution, there are few, according to Lilford. "It has some limitations around MOLAP [Multidimensional Online Analytical Processing] structures," he says. "But Tableau is very responsive."

Meanwhile, the rewards are plentiful, starting with low total cost of ownership. "The total of what I've spent on Tableau over three years is less than what I spend on most other applications in one year," Lilford reveals.

In addition, the productivity gains are significant. "For example, it previously required one group about two and a half weeks to build a certain presentation," Lilford says. "Now it takes one person about half a day."

And support calls are non-existent, according to Lilford. He says, "The only call we ever get is: 'I want another license.'"

CASE STUDY SNAPSHOT


Company: UnitedHealthcare, a division of UnitedHealth Group (Minnetonka, Minn.; $73 billion in total assets).
Lines of Business: Health.
Vendor/Technology: Seattle-based Tableau Software’s Tableau Server big data analytics visualization tool.
Challenge: Provide a self-service interface for business users to analyze big data and create customized reports.

Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio

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