Can Mobile BI Really Be Effective?

There is still a tendency in some parts to wonder whether Business Intelligence (BI) can really be effectively consumed using phones and tablets. But recent history suggests that the risk lies in underestimating the effect that technology will have.

You only have to look at the way mobile phone use has evolved over the past decade, or even just the last five years, to see how a particular format can be utterly transformed by freeing it from the desktop.

In terms of SAP Mobile BI, the case is even more persuasive. For SAP, Mobile is just one strand in a tapestry of new technologies that are transforming BI and its subset, Enterprise Performance Management. Although Mobile BI, cloud computing and HANA (SAP’s ultra-fast, in-memory database implementation) appear at first sight to be three separate entities, they are in fact complementary technologies that work best together.

Consider this: is there any point in investing in HANAs’s fast in-memory operation if you have to wait for the exec to get back to their desk before they can act upon it? No. The information is no use until it has been delivered to the decision-maker, and that’s where Mobile BI comes in.

Last year, Gartner claimed that by 2013, 33% of BI will be consumed on mobile devices. At first glance this seems optimistic. But we won’t necessarily be achieving this just by converting desktop BI users to mobile BI; the change of platform provides an opportunity to start delivering BI to a wider audience within the organisation.

Delivering useful, consistent and relevant Business Intelligence or Enterprise Performance Management across the organisation, to workers in the office or in the field, and in real-time, would provide huge benefits for most large organisations, and a few smaller ones too.

At the moment the most convincing use cases remain mobile implementations of the old desktop functionality. Briefing books are a given, of course, and have become feasible since the tablet arrived to provide larger screens than smartphones could manage.

Automatic alerts based on defined exceptions are also useful; this may not seem like news, because this has been feasible since the dawn of the BlackBerry, but it’s a fine example of the combination of SAP Mobile, HANA and cloud technology to deliver information to decision makers (almost) instantaneously.

The BI industry seems to be stretching a bit to come up entirely new and convincing use cases. Take the “briefing book” analogy. One idea that gets mentioned a lot is that a sales executive, paying a visit to a customer, could arrive on site, take out his tablet, and automatically be presented with the information relating to that customer, thanks to the fact that the BI application is location-aware. This is undoubtedly cool, but it’s doubtful whether the coolness is worth the investment.

Another idea, again related to the idea of location-awareness, is that data collection could be done automatically. Particularly, but not exclusively, in logistics and transportation, it’s possible to use a location-aware device to record location and time, and to feed that data back into the BI system. The problem with using this as a justification for Mobile BI is that it’s arguably not even BI; it’s just data collection.

All that said, there’s enough benefit in the “traditional” use cases of BI to justify implementing it using mobile technology. At some point, a game-changing new use case will surely arrive, but exactly what that is remains to be seen.

In the meantime, SAP is adopting an approach that includes not only developing its own mobile applications, but also encouraging partners to develop apps in their own right, in a similar way to the way the iPhone ecosystem has been built by Apple and independent developers.

Ultimately, many of these independent apps act as prototypes or demoware, and it seems likely that any organisation adopting Mobile BI will have to embrace a certain level of bespoke development. A complete off-the-shelf solution is an unrealistic aim.

What doesn’t appear to be mentioned often is the demand that will be placed on the decision maker. After all, what’s the point of delivering near-instantaneous Business Intelligence to a decision maker unless she’s willing and able to act on that information in a similarly reduced timeframe? The executive will be expected to turn information into action more quickly than ever before.

This idea leads to the further notion that the arrival of mobile BI isn’t going to automatically improve decision-making in an organisation. The decision makers are going to have to embrace it and be prepared to fit in with its demands. Speed and clarity of thought will become even more valuable to the organisation, but order-of-magnitude improvements await the organisation that manages to get this right.

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Steve Mainprize has a broad knowledge of Enterprise Performance Management solutions and how the industry has evolved over the past 20 years. He is an experienced project manager and consultant with wide-ranging experience in Business Intelligence, Knowledge Management, Information Systems, Data and Statistical Analysis. He began his career with Comshare delivering Management Information Systems, then with ALG Software, a niche software vendor offering Activity Based Costing Solutions, initially as a consultant, but later in a variety of roles including Product Development Manager and Group knowledge Manager. Steve’s work directly impacted the acquisition of the company by Business Objects (later acquired by SAP). Steve now brings his knowledge and experience to Vantage Performance Solutions, helping to set company strategy relating to the delivery of SAP EPM solutions for its clients.