SmartPhones and tablet computers are selling like hotcakes. Soon, a large swath of your employees will have these devices and want to run corporate applications on them, including business intelligence (BI). But before you embark on a major initiative to empower your entire workforce with mobile BI capabilities, you need to answer three key questions: 1) Which types of employees can benefit most from mobile BI? 2) Which BI tasks make most sense in a mobile environment? and 3) Is your mobile BI provider capable of supporting these BI tasks?
Types of Users
It's not too hard to identify who might need mobile BI capabilities: any employee who spends a good portion of their time away from a desk and needs to check data several times a day is a good candidate for a mobile BI application.
The traditional poster boy for mobile BI is the jet-setting executive who wants to check the status of key company metrics while traveling to and from customer sites and work locations. Traveling salespeople are also good candidates because they need up-to-date information about customers prior to making sales calls. Line managers (e.g. store managers, factory floor managers, school principals) are also target users since they need timely information to manage resources and staff but also need to manage by "walking around" -- interacting with customers and employees -- not sitting behind a desk looking at numbers.
Interestingly, operational workers offer fertile ground for mobile BI. These include field technicians who monitor and fix company infrastructure (e.g., rail lines, pipelines, roadways, and airplanes) or who install or repair products at customer locations (e.g., heating and ventilation technicians, plumbers, elevator repairmen, etc.) They need to check their own performance against their peers and log information about inventory and customer interactions. Other candidates include workers who are on call 24 hours a day and need to troubleshoot problems remotely, such as IT professionals or military personnel.
Not a Candidate? Employees who spend most of their time behind a desk don't need mobile BI. In the BI world, this includes business analysts, statisticians, and report developers. These folks are traditionally deskbound and the work they do--intensive crunching of numbers and report/model creation--is best done with high-powered desktop computers, not on the current generation of mobile devices.
Some argue that mid-level managers need mobile BI because they spend a lot of time in various conference rooms running meetings, facilitating the exchange of information, and monitoring follow-up tasks. But most mid-level managers already have laptop computers that they can easily carry to conference rooms, plug in, and connect to a high-speed network. In my opinion, the only reason to give these managers access to mobile BI capabilities is to help them aspire to the executive suite.
Types of Tasks
Robert Hylton, vice president at Transpara, a mobile BI vendor, offers three criteria for evaluating the types of tasks that make sense for mobile BI:
1. Here and now? Do the tasks need to be addressed immediately?
2. Small and intangible? Is the information about the tasks easy to digest?
3. Perishable? Does the information lose value if it's not acted upon right away?
Asking the above three questions at the outset of a project can help clarify what BI applications make sense to deploy on a mobile platform. "Many decision makers are surprised once they go through this process," says Hylton.
What's left after weeding out applications that don't meet these criteria? Two types of dashboard applications. One enables executives to monitor key performance indicators across the enterprise, and the other enables operational workers to monitor operational activity. Both display performance status according to plan and enable users to drill to view a time series chart and select filters to view detailed data. The best mobile dashboards support an action framework that enables users to attach a chart to an email message, link to another dashboard or view, or trigger a workflow or database update.
The data for mobile dashboards usually comes from a data warehouse or data mart and consists of both summary and detail data loaded on a daily or weekly basis. However, if the dashboard tracks operational activity, then the data either comes from a real-time enabled data warehouse or directly from operational systems via real-time queries.
Hylton defined his criteria with two-inch screen smartphones in mind. But the advent of tablet computers, such as Apple's popular iPad, that support eight-inch, high resolution screens, change the equation. Many mobile BI providers now say that they can easily run any self-service BI application on a tablet computer. Mobility in 2011 knows virtually no BI bounds.
Mapping Devices to Functionality
One way to evaluate the range of BI functionality available for mobile devices is to classify functionality by types of users. At a high level, there are two types: information consumers who use information to do their jobs (e.g., executives, managers, front-line workers,) and information producers who create information for others to consume (e.g. business analysts, report developers, statisticians). (See table 1.)
Smartphones and tablet computers exhibit slightly different footprints in the functional hierarchies depicted in Table 1. Smartphones let users "View" KPI charts or lists and "Navigate" predefined drill paths to view additional details. A few mobile BI vendors enable Smartphone users to "Modify" existing views (e.g., toggle between tables and charts and rank, sort, calculate, visualize or create new columns) as well as "Act" on information by updating remote applications or databases or triggering workflows. Some may even let users "Personalize" screen displays by changing color schemes and fonts, selecting favorites, or saving bookmarks.(See Table 2.)
Tablet computers give mobile BI designers more breathing room to support the full range of consumer-oriented BI functionality. On a tablet computer, users can "Modify" data in columns, "Explore" data in any direction (versus being limited to predefined drill paths) as well as "Act" on information via a variety of mechanisms, most notably email and annotations. Tablets even enable information producers go beyond personalization to "Assemble" simple dashboards and reports from a library of existing parts and components. The remaining "producer" functions are still best done on a desktop computer linked to a high speed network. (See Table 2.)
If we put it all together, we might create a map like the one represented in Table 3. For each type of user, the map defines the mobility requirements, types of tasks, and data requirements. The mapping concludes that users with a high need for mobile BI functionality are executives, outside salespeople, and line managers (e.g., factory floor managers, school principals, store managers.) Field and inhouse technicians have a moderate need, and mid-level managers have minimal need.
Before diving headlong into the world of mobile BI, it's critical that user organizations take some time to assess user requirements and map them to mobile BI functionality offered by their primary BI provider. Even if you're mobile BI vendor doesn't deliver everything you need right now, chances are that they will soon support your requirements since this space is evolving rapidly and highly competitive.
Posted April 26, 2011 3:10 PM
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