Decision-making is no longer restricted to the confines of the office. The need for critical financial metrics for an off-site board meeting, the latest market share reports for a client visit, or timely sales data for a supplier meeting are all examples that highlight the need for anytime, anywhere access to insightful information. If mobile technology is allowing users to check email, download ringtones, play games, manage schedules, and plan tasks, then why should work-related information be left behind? It is not. Mobile business intelligence (MBI), a convergence of business intelligence software, mobile technology, and Internet connectivity, is ensuring that information travels with the mobile workforce.
The most common question about MBI from business users is around the usability of the application. They wonder whether they can view and interact with "real" business reports, or are they limited to using oversimplified watered-down reports that display well on a mobile screen. Users are conditioned to viewing their reports at their desktops using a full Web browser with the ability to interactively investigate the data. With the latest MBI technologies, users can view and interact with the very same reports that they use at their desks - making their mobile experience just an extension of their in-office experience.
Silent Installation, Unobtrusive Operation
MBI applications must adhere to even stricter levels of reliability than normal computer applications. MBI applications cannot heavily utilize the smartphone's memory and must coexist seamlessly with the other applications, deferring to the phone application itself.
Because MBI applications might be implemented on tens of thousands of smartphones in a given company, the installation process needs to be foolproof. Today, there are two methods for simplified MBI application installation. The first is a totally silent installation where a network manager "pushes" the application to all smartphones and completes the implementation steps from a single, centralized location. In this model, every smartphone user wakes up one morning to see a new icon already installed and ready to go on their smartphone. The other method, which is the most traditional smartphone application model, asks the user to point their smartphone browser to a special Web site, click on an "install me" button, and follow a few steps.
The interactive functionality provided to users of MBI applications continues to advance to new levels. For instance, a supply chain manager might view a dynamic grid or graph of data that provides him an account of his inventory. But now, he can also manipulate the report to make it more consumable on a small screen or re-arrange the data to present deeper insight, like comparing trends and understanding how various suppliers performed this month as compared to last month
Often, the most important changes that a user wants to make in a report are in the way the data is displayed, such as column sizes, column order, font sizes, subtotals, and pagination or page-by. MBI applications have the ability to not only allow users to make these display manipulations, but also to save them so that the report will always open in the future using smartphone-optimized formatting.
Robust Security Features
Many smartphones have robust security features as they become more and more like general-purpose business application platforms. It is critical for MBI vendors to adhere and adapt to each device's security features for actions such as disabling the smartphone, or wiping the contents, or encrypting locally stored data. If a sales representative loses his mobile device in a taxi, he can simply contact the administrator who can perform a remote "wipe," deleting all information from the device, including the business intelligence reports.
Many BI platforms have extensive security architectures to protect sensitive data, prevent inappropriate access to restricted reports, and place limitations on the data that the users are allowed to view. MBI applications must be able to exploit and adhere to the same BI security features that Web browser BI interfaces do to ensure the overall security integrity of the BI system. If a sales representative is allowed to see only the information for his customers and the BI platform enforces this restriction on all the reports run on his desktop, then the BI systems must also enforce this data restriction when he runs any report from his smartphone MBI application.
Instant Access-Online or Offline
Most people assume that smartphones have continual network connectivity, but that's not the case. Connectivity can be missing or severely reduced in planes, trains, rural areas, interior spaces of large buildings, or simply in cell shadow areas. Modern MBI applications accommodate this by offering an offline mode of operation in addition to the online mode. In offline operation, reports are stored locally on the smartphone and the MBI application lets users schedule report updates, manage and access locally-stored reports, and manipulate reports without the need for network bandwidth. One major advantage is that the speed of interactivity is much higher than when a network is required to transfer the data or process the manipulations.
Apart from technical matters, the biggest concern for most businesses is the total cost of implementing and owning a BI application on a smartphone. Fortunately, today's MBI applications minimize the costs of implementation and ownership. Since MBI applications can display the same reports and dashboards that were created for the desktop, there is typically little or no new report development required.
MBI in the Field
Recently, a major retail manufacturer improved productivity by deploying a mobile BI application to its large sales workforce. It needed MBI technology that would help detach its workforce from their desktop computers, while not compromising on the rich real-time information available from their desktop BI systems. Previously, sales executives would print myriads of reports to take on sales visits, which was labor intensive because they had to print every possible report they might need for the visit. Furthermore, it was awkward to use because they were often faced with searching for a single detailed piece of information in a huge pile of detailed reports during a meeting. The company's adoption of MBI provided greater access to information to traveling professionals. Sales personnel and brand managers had easy access to product, store, and sales reports anywhere they traveled. Plus, users were able to manipulate the reports to view summary-level data and detailed-level information with equal ease. The returns on this investment were instantaneous - the company had hard savings in employee productivity and paper, but also a myriad of soft benefits as the result of faster decision-making.
According to a leading industry analyst firm, the number of mobile applications deployed by enterprises to their employees will continue to grow by 30 percent per year through 2011. With all this functionality, low cost, easy deployment, flexibility, and freedom, MBI technology is here to stay.