Business intelligence goes mobile

Corporate America is finally beginning to deliver business intelligence where it's needed: everywhere

Even before his company had finished developing its first mobile business intelligence application, Manoj Prasad was deep into planning the next one.

"We could immediately see [mobile] would be big for us," says Prasad, vice president of enterprise architecture, global applications and testing at Life Technologies Corp., a multinational biotech tool maker in Carlsbad, Calif.

In fact, Prasad made mobile business intelligence a 2010 strategic priority for his department. His goal was to roll out mobile applications that would allow its 800-person sales force in the field to dive deeply into data regarding the cutting-edge tools Life Technologies develops and sells to scientific researchers.

Loosely defined, business intelligence (BI) systems take vast quantities of data and put it into visually useful forms (such as graphs and charts) for sophisticated analysis of business trends.

Making that analysis mobile, most typically by tapping the power of today's sophisticated smartphones, can give companies the ability to interact in real time with their customers and business partners, thereby improving service and boosting productivity.

"All enterprise companies will start moving on the mobile path," Prasad predicts, saying that this trend will be spurred on by improvements in the ability of smartphones to display graphical information and the emergence of intuitive graphical interfaces that can better handle BI visualizations.

Mobile BI on the radar

To be sure, mainstream adoption of mobile BI has been on the horizon for a while now. Two years ago, Aberdeen Group Inc. analyst David Hatch produced a report looking at best practices in making business intelligence available on mobile phones.

At the time, only 17 percent of the companies Aberdeen Group surveyed said that they were delivering business intelligence data to mobile phones, though 78 percent indicated they were interested in doing so. At the same time, several BI vendors had introduced mobile versions of their products.

But then the recession hit, and that stymied investment in mobile BI product development and marketing, Hatch says.

What the recession didn't stop was the development of mobile gadgetry, most especially the iPhone, the iPad, and the various Android phones. These new mobile hardware devices can finally handle the complexities of BI, Hatch says.

Companies are responding aggressively. In a May 2010 Aberdeen survey, 23 percent of the companies responding said that they now have a mobile BI application or dashboard in place, and another 31 percent said that they plan to implement some type of mobile business intelligence within the next year.

Users demanding mobile BI

A number of things are drawing companies to mobile BI, says Andrew Borg, a mobile analyst at Aberdeen. "It gives them real-time decision-making, operational efficiency, flexible workflow and increases their responsiveness to customers," he explains.

Delivering those benefits to employees who work in the field held obvious appeal to Life Technologies, where user demand within various departments pushed mobile BI to the top of the strategic list, Prasad says.

In response, Prasad asked his architecture team to look for ways to get data from SAP Business Objects and IBM Cognos BI systems onto employees' BlackBerrys and iPhones.

The team suggested Mellmo Inc.'s Roambi, a data-visualization app that takes BI data from various sources and makes it iPhone- and iPad-friendly. Prasad asked an architect and a developer on his team to use Roambi to develop two reports -- sales quotas and daily sales reports -- that are important to Life Technologies' salespeople.

"I showed it to the CIO, and he got excited. And we showed it to some customers, and they got excited too," says Prasad.

A test version of a system showing daily sales reports taken from Life Technologies' Cognos data warehouse was rolled out this spring to some 50 salespeople with iPhones. Roambi doesn't work on BlackBerrys, so Prasad's team plans to use the mobile version of Cognos to deliver similar functionality to the sales department's BlackBerry users.

Prasad already has his team working on applications for other parts of the company, like a global warehouse report, and has set up a mobile development architecture team to devise an entire mobile strategy for Life Technologies, with a particular emphasis on business intelligence.

Airport data takes flight

If Life Technologies is a mobile BI newbie, Fraport AG counts as an experienced veteran.

Fraport AG, the organization that runs Germany's Frankfurt Airport and a number of other airports, started a business intelligence project six years ago, says Dieter Steinmann, senior manager of business systems there.

The initial goal was to provide data from around the airport -- data about flight departures and arrivals, wait times at security checkpoints, and reasons for delays -- to employees in operations every five minutes, 24 hours a day.

In 2008, Fraport made that data mobile and delivered it to some 100 operations and customer relations managers at Europe's third-busiest airport, which last year saw more than 50 million passengers.

About 800 employees can now access information from a SAS Institute Inc. BI system via their phones. "When managers can get some actual information on the actual situation, it helps them make better decisions," says Steinmann.

For instance, through May of this year, 68 percent of the flights at Frankfurt Airport were on time. But that means that 32 percent of the flights weren't on time. Managers who meet with airlines to discuss the reasons for delays used to have to retreat to their offices to find data about delays affecting specific flights; they typically don't carry laptops into meetings, Steinmann says.

But they do carry BlackBerrys, and now they can use those devices to instantly find out what happened to cause a delay, including whether the airline itself played a role. Knowing the answers immediately means problems can be resolved faster because there's less need for managers to make one another wait for answers while they stop to look up information.

Steinmann said that Fraport needed to do relatively little work to get the data from SAS 9 onto the BlackBerry platform -- some XML coding and style sheets, worked up by a student intern who did the project as part of his master's dissertation. "It was a quick and not very expensive way" to do it, says Steinmann, who later hired the intern full time.

For the mobile version of the BI system, Fraport did need to limit the quantity of the information that it made available, and it couldn't use as many graphics as it did in the desktop version. But the managers took to it. Steinmann says they use it as a way to show customers, "I have the information you need, I have it right here, and I have it in color." It also serves as a feather in the IT department's cap, he notes, since the application both looks good and works well.

A slew of apps on the way

Fraport's application is an early example of what will likely become a bigger phenomenon. "Going forward, we'll see a whole slew of apps for sales forces and field service [teams]," says Stephen Drake, an analyst at research firm IDC.

He says the BlackBerry will still be used for BI, but he notes that more companies will develop applications for devices like Apple Inc.'s iPad tablet and for powerful new phones like the HTC Evo, which has a high-definition screen that makes it easier to do analytics on a mobile device.

Meanwhile, software providers have renewed their mobile BI push, with several of the big business intelligence vendors making moves in that arena recently: SAS added a Mobile dashboard in April, SAP recently introduced versions of its BusinessObjects Explorer for the iPhone and the iPad, and IBM in June showed off a spiffed-up new interface for its Cognos Go Mobile BI product.

In addition, the field has also attracted startups like Del Mar, Calif.-based Mellmo and Leapfactor Inc., which operates a cloud-based service that can bring corporate BI applications to smartphones.

Drake points out that network technology is catching up as well. That's a key development because "you couldn't use [mobile BI] over a 2G network," he says. "It used to be that you'd see these things and say, 'It looks nice in the demo, but am I really going to be able to use this?' Now, the answer is, yes"

Mobilize data to improve customer service

Samir Sakpal, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, predicts that mobile analytics will move beyond niche markets, like the financial sector, into mainstream use because, he says, it helps businesses do two things: "Make faster decisions and drive a higher quality of customer service."

The desire for better customer service drove the adoption of mobile BI at Johnson Controls Inc., according to Robert C. Weisman, a senior manager at the Milwaukee-based technology and industrial conglomerate.

Johnson Controls has been piloting a BlackBerry-based BI tool that's designed to help its district and regional supervisors audit and manage custodial services for a major U.S. retailer, Weisman says.

Johnson has a series of benchmarks it uses for monthly audits that track things like the cleanliness of the retailer's store lobbies, floors, and windows, says Weisman, who declined to identify the retailer.

Previously, Johnson's 72 district supervisors and six regional operations managers did that auditing with pencil and paper, writing down scores as they walked through stores and then later entering the data on their laptops using OpenText Corp.'s enterprise content-management system, formerly known as Livelink.

If a store failed to meet certain standards, the managers had to go back and pull previous audits to look at discrepancies in scores. They would then perform a follow-up audit to see if the problems had been fixed, again recording their findings on paper, entering data into their laptops and then checking the score.

Under a pilot program launched in April, six district supervisors can enter data directly on their BlackBerrys while visiting stores. The data is entered into Open Text's content manager via Actuate Corp.'s open source Eclipse BIRT (Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools) system, and it is displayed through Webalo Inc.'s Mobile Dashboard.

Data that a supervisor enters for a particular store is automatically sent into Open Text and can then be compared to that store's previous audit scores and to the scores of other stores in that chain nationwide. "We can look at it from a single-store, district, regional, and national perspective," says Weisman.

Managers at the retailer can also parse the scores to see if the custodial services provider is doing only the minimum necessary to achieve a base score necessary to pass the audit. For instance, store entryways are difficult to clean, but poor scores in that area can't sink an entire audit by themselves -- and that could mean custodial firms might be tempted to be less careful about cleaning entryways if they know it won't have a big impact on their overall scores. Now, Johnson's supervisors can instantly see whether entryways consistently score poorly and then take steps to address such shirking.

Weisman says the system being piloted has performed exactly as he'd hoped, and Johnson Controls intends to roll it out this August to, among others, all district supervisors, regional operations managers and area managers at the custodial services companies.

Johnson Controls didn't have to spend a lot of money to make its mobile application work.

After the rollout, his goal is to expand what the mobile app can do, turning it into a "super dashboard" to give supervisors reports not just on custodial work, but also on merchandise displays and appearance, and ultimately the condition of the entire store environment, including HVAC systems, plumbing and so on.

Weisman says that Johnson didn't have to spend a lot of money to make the application work -- the field managers already had BlackBerrys for email, and the company was already using Open Text. Only the Webalo dashboard was new, and Weisman says a 100-seat-plus-server license cost "a fraction" of what he spends on Open Text development.

Weisman says that the managers can't do as much data manipulation on their mobile phones as they can on their laptops, but he thinks that will change over time. "I don't think laptops will be around in five to ten years, at least in the form they are today," he says. While he notes that the BlackBerry has limitations as an application platform, he says "these aren't phones, they're handheld computers."

One major challenge for mobile BI is that its impact may be hard to measure. Steinmann says he couldn't put a monetary value on Fraport's application. The fact that it gets used is probably the best indicator that it's a successful tool, he says.

"These applications have soft benefits," agrees Prasad. But he says that despite the squishy ROI, the mobile BI apps will be undeniable drivers of productivity.

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This story, "Business intelligence goes mobile" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.