Thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices and consumer apps that are both highly functional and user-friendly, it's no surprise that corporate executives and other business users might assume that developing and supporting mobile business intelligence applications is easy.
And to be sure, technology advancements are rapidly paving a mobile superhighway for business uses, including BI. But the road is still under construction, and organizations that embark on it as part of mobile BI initiatives must drive carefully and keep an eye out for hazards.
At Pandora Media Inc., which operates the Pandora online music service, mobile BI has begun to permeate the organization. Users include the Oakland, Calif., company's sales force, which is tapping into the technology to do data analysis in an effort to produce a higher win-loss percentage on potential advertising and sponsorship deals.
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Richard Rothschild, Pandora's vice president of information services, said it's important in planning and managing a mobile BI project to avoid being dazzled by the technology. "Keep your eyes on the main goal, which should be improved decision making," he said. "If you embrace that, it lets you see that it's cool if you provide something that isn't cool-looking."
Rothschild's team focused on delivering practical mobile BI capabilities to as many people at Pandora as possible. For example, he saw some end-user dashboards that looked slick but were too big to be useful on mobile devices. Another key task, he said, was figuring out how to summarize data to give users what they needed to make decisions while not inundating them with massive amounts of information that could clutter up the mobile user interface.
Keep it simple for the uninitiated
For organizations that are just getting started with mobile BI, Jill Dyché, a longtime BI and data management consultant who now is vice president of thought leadership at software vendor SAS Institute Inc., recommends beginning with a single set of functions to get people accustomed to what in many cases is still a new user experience.
"Usability is key," said Dyché, who was a partner at Baseline Consulting before it was acquired by SAS early last year. She pointed to one client, a maker of medical devices that wanted to use mobile BI technology to analyze data and send alerts to truck drivers making deliveries to customers. "We suggested starting out by simply getting daily routing plans to the drivers every morning on their tablets," she said. "Once they were used to navigating those reports, using and responding to the alerts was much easier."
The bottom line is that mobile BI applications have to work for business users, said Deepa Deshpande, a senior technical consultant at Persistent Systems Ltd., an India-based provider of software development and technology strategy and consulting services. To ensure that they do, she recommends being proactive in providing support for popular smartphones and tablet PCs, such as the Apple iPad and iPhone and Android devices.
Deshpande said that keeping tabs on performance is also important, particularly as the amount of data and number of reports being accessed by mobile BI users start to grow. Security is another crucial aspect of mobile BI, she said: "Strategies need to be in place early on to ensure that corporate data is secure."
Space at a premium for mobile BI apps
Steps to avoid on mobile BI deployments, according to Deshpande, include the tendency to crowd information on the screens of smartphones and tablets, which can make the applications difficult to use. "The real estate available on the devices is limited -- be aware of that," she said.
Nauman Noor, a consultant at a large accounting services and management consulting firm that he asked not be identified, said companies should take an integrated approach in building their BI infrastructures -- including support for delivery of data to mobile devices now or in the future. He also recommends separating the data presentation layer from the lower-level components of a BI technology stack in order to ensure that mobile BI applications will be adaptable as devices come and go.
"The key is having the right architecture in place," Noor said. Conversely, he warned that it can be a dead end to take a shortcut and try to simply evolve an existing BI system for mobile uses.
Despite the potential hurdles, Jim Gallo, a BI and data warehousing consultant at Information Control Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, offered some pithy advice to prospective adopters of mobile BI tools: "Just do it." For many organizations, mobile BI isn't likely to be a big-ticket item, according to Gallo. A growing number of business users already have bought mobile devices that could handle BI applications, he said; in addition, companies often need to add only another commodity server to their hardware infrastructure in order to get started on supporting mobile BI capabilities.
"The cost of entry is very low from a capital expenditure standpoint," he said. "You can really start to push what you have now and refine it as you go along."
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