Business intelligence might be associated with the work of highly skilled analysts, often working in finance or corporate strategy, who pore over business data looking for ways to improve service, beat the competition and boost profits.
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And it is true that conventional business intelligence and analytics systems are often the preserve of the specialist. Systems from suppliers such as analytics company SAS or information management software house Kalido – or even entities such as Business Objects (part of SAP) or Cognos (owned by IBM) – are often used to solve very specific business problems.
These tools rely on complex algorithms, a deep understanding of the business's data and skilled personnel to make the best use of them. Systems from SAS, for example, are used to spot fraud in banking and credit card transactions. Business Objects' software is used in defence in areas from procurement to medical logistics.
But while powerful, these large-scale business intelligence (BI) applications are frequently static, look mostly at historical data and rely on trained analysts to use them to the greatest effect. Over the last few years, a trend has emerged for companies to look for a more accessible, more lightweight and more flexible form of BI. And one of the main reasons for that trend is a desire to access BI from mobile devices.
"We're seeing more CEOs and CFOs being direct users of BI. After email, BI is the most popular application," says Joao Tapadinhas, a research director at Gartner, an analyst firm.
Executives, but also line managers and operations managers, want more immediate access to the wealth of data held in BI systems. They want quick responses, rather than waiting days, or even weeks, for a specialist to write an algorithm and then produce a report.
However, managers also want more accessible information, including better visualisation of the data gathered by BI. Although by no means do all companies need – and can afford the resources – to move to true real-time analytics, a growing number of managers will accept a lower level of detail and perhaps, analytical power, for a more accessible and more visual take on BI. And that type of BI lends itself to working on mobile devices.
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"Mobile BI is visually rich and appeals to an audience that doesn't like traditional BI tools: they are often too advanced for their needs," says Tapadinhas.
"Some observers have been surprised at the number of people doing BI away from the office," notes Ted Bissell, a mobile business expert at PA Consulting Group. "But if the technology allows you to log in from a smartphone or tablet to make a quick decision, the chances are you will take advantage of it.
"BI has become more democratic and more employees can benefit from it on a day-to-day basis. It is shifting away from an elite group of users where actions take hours or weeks. If you have mobile access, it's easier to be right when it comes to making a decision, then and there."
Benefits of mobility
And, as Gartner's Tapadinhas points out, business intelligence is following the path set by that other cross-functional business application, email. Although few users would choose to use mobile email to compose long and complex messages, that has not stopped the growth of mobile email, firstly on the BlackBerry and more recently on smartphones.
Most users look at mobile email as a way to keep on top of messages during the working day, during downtime and while travelling.
Mobile business intelligence, Tapadinhas suggests, is developing in a similar way, especially now suppliers have realised that a direct port of a back-office or PC-based business intelligence application to a mobile device is not the best option.
"That doesn't work very well," he says. "The users are sometimes different. They expect a new experience from mobile BI".
The trend for greater use of mobility also goes hand in hand with a greater emphasis on visual representation when it comes to analytics, says Martha Bennett, an analyst at Forrester Research covering big data, analytics and BI.
"What you push out to mobile devices will depend on how the back end is architected. But there is a large difference between being able to present a report on a mobile device, and having something that is optimised for a mobile device. Some applications for the iPhone or iPad are completely static. It is only really mobile if you can drill down or write back to the application."
Although static reporting tools have their uses – and enterprise dashboards are an obvious application for mobile BI, especially on larger-screen tablets – it is the ability to carry out basic analysis such as "What if" calculations and write back conclusions or new data that marks out a fully optimised mobile BI tool.
And the newer generation of mobile BI applications is also making more use of in-device features, such as location information – via GPS – or other sensors and cameras. Location-aware systems can, for example, pre-filter the information they present to a user: a regional manager in retail might see initial screens just with details of local stores.
Devices such as RFID, NFC or even smartphone cameras, on the other hand, can be used to capture data on environmental conditions and provide evidence of events, such as a delivery or field repair, back to a central analytics system.
Integration with those systems and integrating BI with workforce automation systems or tools, such as CRM, is also important to ensure business intelligence is used to its full advantage. This can require additional work by IT teams, especially where companies invested in BI some years ago but have not kept systems up to date.
For their part, application developers also have to work in the constraints posed by working on portable devices, as well as with device-specific functions. Restrictions in processing power, data storage and connectivity on mobile devices do require software suppliers, as well as IT departments, to design BI deployments that play to devices' strengths, as well as limit their weaknesses.
"The main constraint is that even with the best efforts there are places without connections," says PA Consulting Group's Bissell. "Some tools offer an offline mode but that usually only works with a limited amount of data," adds says Gartner's Tapadinhas.
But, perhaps surprisingly, mobile BI users do not seem to regard the smaller screen of a tablet or smartphone as a limitation. It can even be an advantage, as it forces the application supplier to improve the user interface. Reducing the number of on-screen functions can make the application significantly easier to use, as well as more responsive on lower-powered devices.
"Mobile applications are usually simpler," says Tapadinhas. "The supplier tends to make an effort with interface design to make them more accessible."
Using BI to mobilise the business
Not all mobile business intelligence is about analysing data on a tablet or smartphone. For some businesses, the real potential for BI lies in helping them to allocate personnel or other resources to different workloads on the fly.
Examples include the usual task-based mobile workforces such as field service, sales and distribution. Business intelligence, combined with real-time or near-real-time data from sensors such as GPS, can ensure the nearest driver is allocated to a pick-up, or trucks take the shortest (or greenest) route between deliveries, according to traffic conditions, the urgency and value of the delivery or even the employee's driving style.
One IT company, for example, uses business intelligence software to optimise its field service operations. According to Giles Nelson, deputy CTO at software supplier Progress, the supplier uses BI software to match up the physical location of parts and engineers, with its service level agreements (SLAs) with customers.
This context-aware information allows the supplier to optimise its operations, and ensure it meets its SLAs. If a client has an SLA that demands quick repairs, but the replacement part is not to hand, the company might opt to send an engineer with a higher-specification part if that means meeting the SLA. But doing this, Nelson says, means having a BI system that is both location-aware and operating in close to real time.
Other examples of companies using business intelligence in this way include taxi companies and law enforcement.
Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, for example, uses business intelligence software to discover crime hotspots – or even possible crime hotspots – and to allocate additional officers to them.
And this is being made easier because officers can capture crime information and data on handheld devices or computers in their cars, providing headquarters with a much more accurate picture of the policing situation on the ground than was ever possible with type-written reports, or even over police radios.