In many organizations, the rush by end users to bring mobile devices into the work environment has outpaced plans for putting the technology to business use. Efforts to catch up include a growing interest in enabling mobile business intelligence capabilities on smartphones and tablet PCs. But, BI analysts caution, don't race ahead without having a solid business case for a deployment of mobile BI tools.
Andreas Bitterer, a Gartner Inc. analyst who is based in Germany, said during a recent webcast on mobile BI trends and issues that device availability is only part of the deployment equation. Just because mobile devices can be used to access "some data you would otherwise have on a PC or Mac," Bitterer asked, "is that really a good business case?" His answer is no.
"While I'm a big fan [of mobile technology], organizations should go further than just having a new toy" in justifying mobile BI investments, Bitterer said. He recommended looking at what corporate executives and other workers will be able to do with mobile BI applications that they can't do now.
That might not be a tough task for many BI managers. Jill Dyché, a BI and data warehousing consultant who now works as vice president of thought leadership at software vendor SAS Institute Inc., said that mobile BI capabilities meet business users where they are at any given time. "The ability to make decisions in the field can streamline business processes," Dyché said -- whether "the field" is in a meeting, at a delivery site, in a retail store or at a patient's bedside.
Collaboration when it's convenient
Dyché said another benefit of mobile BI tools is their ability to support collaboration between business users in a convenient way. "I can view yesterday's sales figures at home and text them to my regional sales managers with questions, then have my answers by the time I've gotten to my office and poured my coffee," she said.
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And it's more than just the ability to access data. With a simple mouse click, users can get data from Excel spreadsheets into a visualization tool on their smartphones or tablet PCs. "This means you -- or your customer or patient -- can see the structures and patterns in data, not just raw numbers," Dyché said.
But, she added, the challenge with building a business case for mobile BI is many organizations focus on the look and feel of mobile applications rather than their functionality. "I call this bright, shiny object syndrome," Dyché said "Mobile BI is no different from any other technology pitch: Focusing on the business problem is key."
One organization that has already bought into mobile BI is Illes Seasonings and Flavors in Carrollton, Texas. Les Howell, executive director of IT at the maker of glazes, sauces, rubs and other products for food manufacturers and restaurant chains, said the company has been making a push to support mobility so it can respond to questions and requests from customers in a more timely way.
Sales jobs for mobile BI tools
For example, the sales team can now use mobile BI software to do what-if analyses on potential new product formulations for specific customers. Sales reps can also get faster updates on the status of orders from the customer service department than they could before. In addition, the executive team at Illes is using the mobile BI technology for higher-level reporting.
Howell said the company has designated the Apple iPad as its officially supported mobile device and is running QlikTech's QlikView BI software on the tablet PC. "We made our BI [applications] look exactly like typical iPad apps, with big buttons, so people [familiar with the device] wouldn't have to relearn very much," he said.
David Eads, founder of consultancy Mobile Strategy Partners LLC in Johns Creek, Ga., said that in many cases the biggest challenge is developing a viable mobile BI management plan. In particular, he recommended that companies consider the integration issues involved in delivering BI data across multiple platforms. "Mobile is revolutionizing how people interact, but the dirty little secret is that things like when to fire an alert are proving difficult for existing infrastructures," he said. "At the end of the day, the legacy integration issues are huge for most corporations."
On the other hand, Eads added, the benefits of using mobile technology for applications such as BI can help provide justification for spending the money required to improve an organization's data integration capabilities. "Find a way to get data [onto mobile devices], even if you have to do screen scrapes," he said. "The method may not be pretty, but at least you can add value and prove out the business case on a small scale while you're working to do the heavy lifting of putting in an integration layer."
Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.
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This was first published in September 2012