|Business intelligence (BI) has been heralded as a powerful tool for aiding the decision-making process since the 90’s. Effectively implemented, it can drive efficiency and productivity throughout the business and ensure a more connected, proactive and responsive workforce.
For the benefits of BI to be optimally realised, it needs to be accessible and timely. For too long, BI tools have remained static being tied to the desktop PC and fed by data drawn from various ‘siloed’ enterprise systems (e.g. CRM, marketing, sales and the ERP system). The information can also be inaccurate, if large sets of data are being entered and collated manually, and out of date by the time it reaches the intended recipients. Often executives are expected to wade through vast amounts of ‘relevant information’ and hopefully pick out what they think is pertinent to their strategy.
The wave of IT consumerisation now sweeping the corporate landscape is changing this view with the latest mobile BI applications (apps) able to transform static tools such as dashboards and spreadsheets into actionable reports delivered to the right user, at the right time whenever and wherever the need is. Busy executives equipped with 3G-enabled smart phones and tablet PCs can have instant access to relevant information needed to gain genuine insight, make informed decisions and achieve competitive advantage.
Transforming BI with IT consumerisation
Enterprises both large and small are embracing smart phones and tablet PCs as business tools, making it possible for employees to view and interact with important company data in a more revolutionary way. Analysts at Gartner believe that 33 per cent of BI functionality will be consumed via handheld devices by 2013, while a recent survey by Dresner Advisory Services (DAS) confirmed that the mainstreaming of mobile BI is well underway.
Published in mid-2010, the DAS survey found that nearly a third of respondents intended to augment (or abandon) current BI vendors in support of mobile BI over the course of the next two years, with RIM’s BlackBerry remaining the top priority, followed by Apple’s iPhone and iPad, and then Windows Mobile and Google Android. Fast and pervasive access, flexibility and better decisions were cited as the major drivers, while security, form factor and data volumes presented the biggest barriers.
According to DAS, executives were the top priority for receiving mobile BI, followed by middle managers, board directors, line management and then individual contributors. The top three mobile BI requirements were ‘viewing’, ‘alerting’ and ‘KPI monitoring’, followed by ‘data selection filtering’ and ‘drill down navigation’. ‘Dashboard assembly from components’, ‘guided analysis’ and ‘drag and drop navigation’ were less sought after said DAS. Adoption trends also varied according to the size and viability of the organisation. The smallest of organisations were found to be the most agile and able to absorb new initiatives with relative ease, while larger organisations had larger budgets and more resources to enable change. Thus medium-sized organisations (101-5,000 employees) were the least likely to have the agility, budget or resources to drive change and were potentially most at risk!
A mobile presentation layer
Mobile BI describes the provision of core Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to smart devices. Rather than being a replacement for desktop reporting, it enables the delivery of existing reporting data held in back-office IT systems to be delivered to mobile devices. It uses secure software allowing for fast, efficient extraction and querying of reporting data, condensed to allow for transmission over the mobile network and be optimised to render onto smart devices.
The larger the volume of data the more expensive to send over the mobile network with increased difficult to scroll through on smaller screens, therefore information delivery has to be highly targeted. This is driving a big change in the way executives approach BI delivery, with many starting to critically review the metrics needed to manage their business and ensure that only the right type of information is delivered to the right user at the right time.
As such, the mobile BI applications available in the market today have been designed to add a ‘visualisation front end’ – or ‘presentation layer’ – to an existing system. They can be integrated with some of the most popular BI suites on the market, including SAP Business Objects, Oracle Hyperion/Essbase solutions, IBM Cognos and Microsoft Services BI Reporting and Analysis. They also enable users to read information from sources that are not ‘pure BI’, such as Microsoft Office Excel, Google Docs, Crystal Reports, Salesforce CRM and Microsoft Reporting Services.
The more sophisticated mobile BI solutions available also allow critical business reports and data visualisations to be created on a secure platform behind the user organisation’s firewall. To ensure security, information is encrypted before being transmitted over the air. Meanwhile, features such as remote wipe, file delete and device block, as well as the use of an offline personal identification number (PIN) ensure data is kept safe should the end device be lost or stolen.
Tap, turn and swipe to consume
While there are no ‘hard and fast rules’ to delivering mobile BI, the key is to avoid trying to replicate the desktop environment (the ‘shrink to fit’ method) and also to recognise that browser-based solutions tend to be more convenient for developers than they are for users. Businesses should be looking for ‘native apps’ – i.e. software that has been developed specifically for use on a particular platform or device – that can instantly respond to user requests for information and take advantage of the unique features and functionality of that platform or device.
Given the relative immaturity of the mobile BI market, software vendors tend to target just one or two platforms. Mellmo’s Roambi (www.roambi.com) for example, is a solution specifically created for Apple’s iPhone and iPad and makes company reports and data quick to access and easy to interact with using immersive dashboard-style analytics. Interactive features such as data search and filtering, drill down navigation and guided analysis enables users to more readily spot trends and less likely to miss important insights and means business managers and executives have the insight of powerful business intelligence for faster, better decisions wherever they are.
Users can tap, turn and swipe to display, share and analyse company information provided in the form of accurate reports. Reports can also be cached to smart devices for offline viewing and updated reports fetched when online. With collaboration options, managers can also share insights for timely response to market changes. Key sales metrics can be made available with the graphical interface allowing users to drill down by current year to date, last year to date, monthly sales, region and product category. They can compare profit margins and detect sales trends and guide purchasing and inventory decisions.
In addition, data can be drawn from a variety of external sources – such as analyst reports, media scoring and brand equity providers, or even social media – and then combined with internal information and KPIs to provide users with fast, accurate and insightful data that is easy to interpret and digest. Some mobile BI apps have gone even further, providing an information publishing platform that incorporates data into complete sets of interactive content combining other types of information elements such as text, graphics, video, and collaborative content, enabling users to tell the complete and interactive story behind the data.
Intelligence at your fingertips
Despite the fact that firms are still struggling to identify an objective business case for mobile BI, many recognise the need to target the right information to the right user at the right time. A visualised report on retail sales and traffic by region and store, for example can be presented as tabbed index cards grouped by region. The user can scroll through the ‘cardbox’ using multi-touch gestures and then tap a card to bring up detailed charts and graphs. These can be further manipulated and customised using swipes and other gestures, with up to four store reports displayed simultaneously for comparison.
Indeed, organisations across diverse industries including telecoms, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, consumer technology and packaged goods, are now using mobile BI to expand the reach of their existing business reporting systems. One global firm in the fast moving consumer goods sector is implementing Roambi for example, to deliver core KPIs to its top 100 global executives. Meanwhile, a major US-based biotechnology-tools maker now uses a mobile BI app and iPads to deliver sales data in the form of interactive graphs to its sales team, which helps them to make sense of large volumes of sales and customer data while on the road.
Similarly, a retail manufacturer replaced a thick binder or pc carried by field sales reps with a suite of specialised iPhone apps that allow users to visit stores and gather and report data, such as where products are positioned and how much inventory is on the shelves. They can discuss with the store manager ways to improve sales using the analytics presented via one app, before using another to take an orders. One major manufacturer has even issued iPads with a mobile BI app to staff monitoring its production lines. This means they no longer have to return to fixed PC workstations to consult production data, which could take eight to ten minutes each time given the size of the firm’s factories.
Certainly, few people in management sit at their desk to make decisions, and Tablet PCs are already a preferred presentation tool for many executives needing to access data as discussions are taking place in conference rooms. Not only does mobile BI provide instant access to information and a new level of performance visibility throughout the organisation, it also makes individuals more accountable. If staff know that their sales figures can be accessed by the Financial Director at any time, they will be more diligent in keeping this information up to date.
Mobile BI is also agile. Data sources can quickly be altered to meet changing needs at a departmental or role-specific level and graphical formats re-configured to enable any executive or worker to create and share all types of information and empower users with decision-making on the go. With an increasing number of employees bringing their own laptops, smart phones and tablet PCs into work, more and more firms are looking to mobile BI to realise a differentiated advantage. It can deliver critical intelligence to the right user at the right time while adhering to the proper disciplines and controls demanded by the IT function. It can also be presented dynamically in rich graphical layouts and within the context of the wider market to tell the real story behind the numbers.