Everything you need to know about mobile BI

Business intelligence is supposed to tell managers everything they need to know to improve the way their companies perform. The problem is, companies don’t just operate within their own office walls.

Several traditional business intelligence (BI) vendors have started introducing software tools that will allow users to take the analytic applications residing in their corporate headquarters and deliver the reports to their handhelds or cell phones.

Ottawa-based Cognos, for example, has released Cognos 8 Go!, which works on RIM’s BlackBerry right now and will soon be extended to Windows Mobile 6 devices. Business Objects, meanwhile, has released Business Objects Mobile, while Information Builders and Symbian have also begun making strides to get BI off the desktop.

David Hatch, an analyst with the Boston-based Aberdeen Group, says the proliferation of smart phones and PDAs is driving the development. “In terms of computing being in people’s hands, that is probably increasing at a rate faster than the software,” he says.

Bobbi Slater, manager of financial information systems at Toronto-based ADP Canada, has been a Cognos customer but has chosen to adopt Business Objects’ product if and when it decides to bring BI to its BlackBerry user base.

“So many people are not in the office or tied to their notebook anymore,” says Slater. “This allows them to be productive.” Slater says mobile BI is definitely something ADP will consider as part of its long-term roadmap, as it probably is with other enterprise IT departments. Here are some answers to common questions that may help define that road map a little further.

How does it work? C

ognos’s product makes use of the existing BlackBerry infrastructure, in particular RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). Middleware connects users’ devices to the BI software, such as Cognos 8, inside an organization. This is controlled by the BES administrator, not Cognos.

“Any API report that’s written for the desktop can be viewed on a mobile device. Administrators don’t have to create a specific report for the mobile. It’s a single authoring environment,” says Brent Winsor, product marketing manager at Cognos.

Similarly, all processing around Business Objects Mobile happens on the server, not the device. Users would log in and see different folders of their BI reports. Business Objects’ product includes “time sliders,” where users can scroll to see changes in the data over time, says Emily Mui, the firm’s manager of product support.

Who should get it first?

“Executives typically would be a prime user,” Winsor says. “(Cognos CEO) Rob Ashe has been using it for quite a while. Anyone like that — executives, anyone sitting in an airport lounge, constantly in motion, like your sales force.”

Business Objects is also using it internally, Mui says, beginning with its European sales team. “The head (of that group) was tired of logging in every night to get his pipeline and forecast, so he worked with the labs team in Paris and implemented it internally. All sales managers who use BlackBerries now look at the updates to the forecasts in the pipeline,” she says, adding that vertical markets may adopt mobile BI differently.

“It could be someone in retail who needs to look at the store sales, making sure that actuals match to the targets. They’d want to drill down to see which store isn’t performing well and contact the store manager. It could see the same thing in manufacturing — following Six Sigma, making sure those metrics are being met.”

Hatch says the technology could apply to anyone that needs to take the next step, rather than examining the business as a whole. “This gets down to operational BI approach, where BI is now moving into the area of making business decisions that are at an operational level,” he says. “You might see it in wholesale distribution, where the delivery person is also the sales person. They not only want to know what to pull off a truck to deliver — which may have changed since the truck was loaded — but what recommendations to make when they walk into the customer.”

Can you actually read anything?

Winsor says the size of the report doesn’t have to be a limitation, because the application flips horizontal BI data into a vertical view. “One of the great things about it is the fact that even if the report has a large table on it, you can do a row or column focus where you can quickly see that information. You don’t have to scroll through a large table.”

Mui agrees, adding the Business Objects’ product allows users to click and drill on charts that are part of dashboards. “A lot more has happened in the last six-seven years in terms of resizing the reports in the display,” she says.

Slater is less convinced. “It really goes better with things like dashboards where you have one number they can interact with — ‘What’s my total sales now,’ alerts, collaboration types of things,” she says. “It allows that quick interaction. If it’s a large data report, it doesn’t fit well on the screen. I know they can do it, it’s just not readable.”

What’s involved in terms of setup and security?

“It takes days, not weeks to install into the server,” says Mui. “If you have new users coming on board, it’s a great way to get them set up immediately.”

Slater says it will be important that mobile BI adhere to the same role-based access policies that govern traditional analytics implementations. “It’s one more interface to go through — you have to work out the connection between the BlackBerry server and software — but most of (the vendors) have worked it out.” Winsor says Cognos Go leverages existing security in Cognos 8 BI. Users are expected to log in and be authenticated as they would in desktop environment. “All the data that’s transmitted over the air is secure. No one can intercept the message and read it.”

How long before you can start doing ad-hoc queries on a mobile device?

Don’t hold your breath, according to Mui. “Maybe when the devices have evolved a little more. It’s still a little early right now,” she says, adding that these kind of trends tend to be unpredictable. “Who would have thought IM would be the way most employees communicate?”

Winsor was even less optimistic. “It could happen, but there’s no query or so forth right now,” he says. “It’s about getting the report, viewing the report, the table or the dashboard.”

The trouble with mobile ad-hoc queries, according to Hatch, is that they would be so ad-hoc. “It’s feasible, sure. Is it practical? Now what you’re talking about is not knowing what people are going to ask. Everybody wants to know a little something different,” he says.

“If you can predict what people want, you could quite easily say take out your stylus and push a bar chart or a customer’s name or see their orders for the last 30 days. But that’s pre-defined. You’d have to have all the possibilities there. That paradigm and the mobile device paradigm don’t mix as well.”

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