How Mobile Devices Change BI
Even the fastest bandwidth may not be able to keep up with data intensity of BI applications, so what must change?
By Carl Weinschenk
The marriage of business intelligence to smartphones, mobile Internet devices (MIDs), netbooks, and other devices smaller than laptops will enable the industry to play an even greater role in how organizations handle their data. At the same time, however, mobilization of BI in general (and on small form factor devices in particular) raises key challenges and even forces a rethinking of precisely what BI is.
Mobilization to small devices changes BI in two ways: Sending large volumes of BI data to and from the field suggests that a broader range of employees are using BI, and these road warriors almost certainly have different job descriptions and responsibilities than the traditional "stationary" consumers of BI.
Although the democratization of BI benefits the enterprise, there is a contradictory reality in how this actually gets done. BI is data-intensive, but the mobile environment, even in the age of 3G and 4G networks, is based on scarce resources. Mobile networks pass data more slowly than corporate LANs. The spigot sporadically is turned off entirely. Even more significantly, smartphones, MIDs, and related devices have tiny screens. Throw in lower processing power and less memory than desktops and a world of challenges -- and vendor opportunities -- are born.
The importance of the trend even goes beyond the mobilization itself. Mobile devices serve as a conduit through which BI, in a general sense, more completely permeates the enterprise. "Research I conducted shows that companies both large and small are looking for ways to deliver BI and analytical functionality to more functions in their organizations and more roles in each function," says Mike Lock, a research analyst for BI at the Aberdeen Group.
Santiago Becerra, the chairman of MeLLmo Inc., says that adjustments are necessary on three fronts: The user interface (i.e., the screen and how the user interacts with it), the backend infrastructure, and the connectivity between the two. MeLLmo offers a family of applications that bring BI to Apple's iPhone.
The three are interrelated. For instance, data must be organized at the backend and sent in a manner that is optimal for devices' limited horsepower, storage, and small display. This involves changes to every leg of the stool. Ways must be found to trim the transmission to the salient data. Because connectivity is not guaranteed, the system must be able to store necessary data and allow field forces to work offline and accomplish goals even in the absence of connectivity. New and creative ways must be found to display data and let users interact with it.
Mobile BI systems also must integrate with traditional functions found in mobile environments. For instance, the system must be designed to alert end users of updates through a variety of multimedia tools. In addition, mobilized employees are likely to be more action oriented and be dealing with issues that require immediate attention from different members inside and outside the organization, many of whom likely will be mobilized as well. Thus, there is a nascent tie between mobile BI and mobile unified communications.
Becerra says that the emphasis on action means that operational data that now often bypasses the BI platform must be routed through it. "In addition to delivering information, organizations are going to have to expand the system and create an interface for more operational BI for the rest of the organization," he says. "This is a blurring a little bit of the traditional line between what is considered BI and what is reporting. Most of the information in companies ironically doesn't flow through the BI system. The distribution of those reports typically is done in simple formats like .pdfs and Excel."
Clearly, truly mobilizing BI involves far more fundamental changes than putting a new front-end on existing platforms. However, a complete change-out of existing systems -- a "rip and replace" scenario -- isn't likely for those firms with substantial platforms in place. Conversely, it is important that companies just getting serious about BI plan their infrastructures with mobility in mind.
The bottom line is that the advent of small mobile devices is an important step in the evolution of BI, and incremental changes must be made to accommodate the new approach. "We are entering a whole new world," Becerra says.
Carl Weinschenk runs The IT-Finance Connection (it-financeconnection.com) a site, blog, and free newsletter that cover communications among IT, finance departments, end users, and vendors in the planning, deployment, management and upgrading of BI platforms. The site features commentary and podcasts. You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.