Mobile BI sparks recast of business intelligence

Mobile BI constitutes an entirely new usage paradigm, says the TDWI: one which fundamentally recasts how, when and where people interact with and consume information.

Don't make the mistake of treating mobile business intelligence as just another interface. In fact, mobility lends itself to an entirely new usage paradigm, one that fundamentally recasts how, when and where people interact with and consume information.

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For this reason, mobile BI entails both risks and rewards, said David Stodder, director of TDWI Research, a division of The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI).

“IT managers and developers have to keep in mind that BI is not necessarily the user’s primary application on the device,” wrote Stodder in Mobile Business Intelligence and Analytics: Extending Insight to a Mobile Workforce, a recent TDWI report.

“Mobile devices are also increasingly used for participation in both internal ... and external ... social media networks. BI’s availability on devices could make ‘social BI’ more commonplace, with users sharing reports, analytics and data views in corporate wikis and internal social networks such as Chatter.”

Many organisations want to treat mobile BI as an extension of an existing in-house status quo.

“Many mobile BI implementations simply treat the devices as new clients in existing architectures,” Stodder explained in the report. “Organizations that are rolling out mobile BI and analytics as part of larger enterprise strategies often prefer this approach because it allows them to use their existing data management, integration, metadata and governance infrastructure.”

As Stodder noted, the mobile context doesn't much resemble any known enterprise IT architecture, presenting as it does a mix of practical difficulties -- from its smaller screen sizes to its point-and-tap user interaction paradigm -- and thorny technology issues, such as unpredictable query performance. Then there's the growing issue of mobile security, which is quite unlike its enterprise counterpart.

Instead of replicating an existing (and fairly frustrating) status quo, Stodder urged organisations to be alert to the potential of mobility as a transformative force. “The ultimate role of mobile BI may not be to simply replicate what’s been done on desktops and workstations or to merely act as clients in existing architectures,” he suggested. “Mobile devices facilitate information on the go and the application of information insights to dynamic situations with colleagues, business partners and customers. Strategies and expectations should be different.”

Mobile BI betokens new relationship

Industry veteran Donald Farmer goes this one better. Farmer, a product advocate with analytics software specialist QlikTech, said the mobile context doesn't just change the way in which a user interacts with BI or analytics; it changes the kind of relation -- the relationship -- that the user has (or can have) with business software. That is, with their relationship with work.

It's the difference between an inescapably antagonistic relation and a congenial -- and often enthusiastic -- one, Farmer said.

“Someone said the iPad is a lean-back scenario and the laptop is a lean-forward scenario,” he observed. “There's something different about how we use [technology] on a tablet and how we use it on a desktop, or even a laptop. I don't think it's [that] we're more comfortable with a tablet, it's [that] we're accustomed to being comfortable. [The tablet or mobile phone] isn't something forced on us. We want to use it, to interact with it.”

Farmer said mobility has already changed how his company designs and develops its BI software. Eventually, he predicted, BI vendors -- and independent software vendors as a whole -- will embrace mobile-first strategies in which the design and development of traditional client software is deprecated in favour of a focus on mobile. 'The mobile experience [at QlikTech] is no longer influenced by the desktop; it's the other way around,” he said, adding that the release of Windows 8 likewise promises to bring a mobile-like, tap-and-interact experience to traditional clients.

Software vendors are evolving, Farmer said; IT organisations need to do the same. “I think [the] one thing that's extremely important is that we're getting away from [focusing] just on user interfaces and concentrating much more on the overall user experience. We need to focus on making [the user experience] much more immersive,” he stressed.

To simply replicate an existing BI or analytics experience in the mobile context is to squander an unprecedented opportunity, he maintained. Users are excited about mobility, and savvy IT organisations -- like savvy BI vendors -- will find ways to tap this excitement.

For Farmer, this means “immersion” -- a user experience in which the activities or attributes that we today associate with “work” -- for example, the use or consumption of BI or analytics -- are presented or surfaced in less traditionally business-like, less antagonistic, contexts. These include, for example, social media, discussion forums, and real-time interaction and collaboration.

Glen Rabie, CEO of Yellowfin, an Australia-based developer of Software as a Service BI and analytics technologies, echoes this sentiment. “When you think of the iPad, [or] of any tablet, you can just conjure up that image -- of people leaning over it. So what we're seeing are people who in the past were not really that interested in BI are now far more interested in it,” he said. “[A tablet is] such a better experience; it's so much easier [to use]. The whole idea is that people use it and they use it often; they want to use it.”

As a SaaS vendor, Yellowfin promises to address some of the issues -- such as inconsistent data access, unpredictable query performance and a fraught security model -- that Stodder and TDWI say makes mobility such a daunting proposition.

Rabie understands that enterprises want to be cautious with mobile BI, but he advises against being too cautious.

“That kind of delivery mechanism [that is, a tablet] means that you have a salesperson on the road who can sit down with a business owner and say, 'This is how your business is tracking with us. This is how you need to generate more sales.' It's about people sitting around the report and interacting with it -- tapping, dragging [that is, swiping] in real time -- rather than just being presented to,” he notes.

Stodder suggests another way in which going mobile can be a boon to an organisation's BI practice.

“With older, traditional BI, IT is in charge of all development, and users have to wait out the backlog,” he points out. More than two-thirds of respondents to a recent TDWI Research survey expressed the belief that mobility will make their users less dependent on IT.

“Although mobile applications may offer more limited options, the general trend toward greater self-service BI will allow users to personalize their experience -- as they can do with other types of applications on their devices -- and also eliminate features that are not important.”

TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute), in partnership with IRM UK, will present the TDWI BI Symposium at the Radisson Blu Portman, in London, 10-12 September, 2012. is a media sponsor.

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