Mobile BI takes baby steps into the enterprise

Mobile BI needs to go beyond pushing static reports to smartphones to bring significant new value. EU corporate IT adoption is nascent.

As smartphones and tablet PCs continue their incursion into the enterprise, IT departments are increasingly being asked to provide access to business data on such devices. The IFTFT industry has cottoned on to the trend, and one of the notable areas being hyped at the moment is mobile business intelligence (BI).

But while the early adopters of the technology tended towards pushing static reports to devices such as BlackBerrys through email, it is the enhanced visualisation and interactivity possible on bigger-screen tablet devices—predominantly Apple’s iPad—that seem to offer the most potential for the future.

“The BI vendors were very quick to develop apps,” Gartner analyst Andreas Bitterer said. “MicroStrategy brought out a mobile application just two or three months after the iPad came out, for example, quickly followed by others like IBM, Information Builders, Oracle and SAP.”

But Bitterer added that some of the more interesting offerings emanate from smaller, newer players like PushBI and MeLLmo (with Roambi), although he anticipates these newcomers will be acquired by major players within two years. “The established BI companies come out with middle-lane user interfaces even though they have the resources to develop something compelling, but it is the creativity of the smaller companies that shines out at the moment,” he said.

Early adopters such as the organizations profiled below are showing that even basic mobile BI can offer significant benefits. But Ovum analyst Mike Davis thinks we’ve a long way to go before the market reaches anything like maturity. “At the moment, the effort is largely on replicating desktop BI on smaller mobile devices,” he said. “But as organisations’ awareness develops, they will start to put pressure on vendors to provide richer, real-time, interactive BI on these devices. But maturity? That's probably three to five years away.”

Playing Around with Mobile BI
HTI is a UK-based toy manufacturer and distributor that supplies major UK retailers such as Argos, Toys R Us, Tesco and Asda with brand-name toys, including the Toy Story, Peppa Pig and Hello Kitty merchandise lines. Ensuring that the company has the right stock for the busy Christmas and summer shopping seasons is no mean feat. With a three- to four-week lead time to obtain orders from manufacturers in the Far East, understanding market trends in real time is critical to meeting peaks in demand for particular products and maximising profit margins.

Back in 2007, all transactions, orders and stock were handled by the company’s ERP system, which was unable to produce the meaningful real-time reports that business users needed. For the next two years, IT director John Lord worked with UK-based IBM business partner Enterprise BI to implement a Cognos data warehousing and reporting system that would give the business the data it needed, when it needed it. The system uses the Cognos Go! Mobile service to produce customised reports for key management personnel, such as HTI’s sales director, managing director and staff members; the reports are emailed weekly in a BlackBerry-friendly format.

Lord said, “We’re sending out targeted reports which only contain information critical to individual buyers or product managers in particular areas or sectors, as well as summary reports for the board.”

Although the email reports are static and don’t allow for rich visualisation or drilling down into information, Lord said managers at HTI generally don’t need those functions. “The point is they no longer have to wait for month-end reports and have the information at their fingertips to act quickly when they spot an issue,” he said. “The system can also produce further customised reports fairly easy should these be needed.”

Lord added that he would be interested in moving to a tablet-based user interface in  future. “Because of its size, there’s a limit to what you can do on a BlackBerry,” he said. “Using iPads to see that information in visual form would be great. When there's an app that replicates what Cognos can do on the desktop, with dashboards and the like, that will be fantastic—but we’re not there yet.”

De Hypotheekshop: At home on iPads
Independent Dutch mortgage adviser De Hypotheekshop has 180 franchise branches across the Netherlands and deals with more than 15,000 clients a year. As a leading player in the volatile and heavily regulated financial market, anything the company can do to ease access to critical information will be key to its ongoing business success and its regulatory compliance efforts.

As well as providing real-time data on costs, revenues, margins and distribution channels, De Hypotheekshop wanted to give franchisees real-time access to market information and the ability to more easily meet demands for compliance-related information from regulators.

“The financial slump and increasing market demand for transparency has been game-changing for the financial sector,” said Patrick Nelissen, the company’s franchise and formula manager. “To ensure a return on investment from our activities as a financial intermediary, we have to run things on the basis of up-to-date information rather than gut feeling. In addition, it is paramount [that] franchisees receive management information quickly, in a user-friendly way.”

In 2009, the company opted for a QlikView-based BI application implemented by Netherlands-based specialist financial systems provider Hippo  QlikView had the advantage of being able to integrate data from De Hypotheekshop’s Kompas CRM system, SQL Server database and .Net budgeting module, as well as up-to-date market information from the Dutch land registry database and central bureau of statistics. It also enabled the mortgage adviser to meet demands for transparency by using a compliance module.

But the critical step in terms of getting the system adopted, and embraced, quickly was the company’s decision to deploy the software on iPads across its branch network. “The iPad has a wow factor that makes users want to try it out. Companies normally have to invest in user adoption programs, but with the iPad we didn’t need to do this,” Nelissen said.

Since the deployment of the mobile BI application, De Hypotheekshop says it has seen significant business benefits, including 10% average cost savings across branches, with proportion of sales leads or customer approaches that are converted into actual sales up 30%, 15% savings on marketing, and the ability to answer 90% of investigative questions  -- from regulators about compliance issues, from auditors, and from people making e-discovery or Freedom of Information requests that must legally be fulfilled within a day.

Oasis Medical Solutions: A healthy mobile future?
Around 30 UK hospitals use the Web-based Oasis Patient Administration System (PAS), which among other functionality includes the ability to access patient test results. Developer Oasis Medical Solutions wanted to extend the capabilities of the system to give both clinical and nonclinical staff rapid access to test results, such as pathology and radiology lab reports, through Phones. The company knew any increase in the speed of access to such results could help hospital staff decide on treatments and actions more quickly, potentially improving care and saving more lives.

Because the data needed to be moved between iPhones and the PAS system’s back-end Oracle database in hospitals, where 3G and Wi-Fi coverage is often patchy, there was also a need for reliable mobile data management and synchronisation capabilities. Working with UK-based development partner Ecommnet, Oasis opted for SQL Anywhere from SAP’s Sybase subsidiary, which enabled it to develop the application quickly without the need to build a dedicated system to manage the storage and transmission of data. Development speed was key, since Oasis wanted to demonstrate the system at an upcoming trade show.

Another consideration was privacy, so the application also employed the Sybase Afaria security solution to protect sensitive patient information on the iPhone. Oasis began piloting the application at three hospitals last year. The company is now looking to extend the application to work with other mobile devices and potentially add mobile support to other components of the PAS.

Robert Campbell, managing director of Ecommnet said he can see potential for similar applications on mobile devices oriented towards patient discharge, which should free up resources, such as beds, to increase throughput. There is clinician demand for the applications, he said, but the “stumbling block tends to be the powers that be in the hospital. They see a mobile phone; they see a toy; they see a security risk.

“But security is sandboxed within the application itself, and user authentication is tied back to the Oracle database. The Sybase tools encrypt the database and the underlying communications are also encrypted.”

As for the iPhone, Campbell said: “To scale out to nursing staff the costs might be prohibitive, so Android might [if cheaper] then be used. You could do the development within a few days because the underlying technology would be the same.”

He maintained the implementation is “very unusual in that other applications we are seeing in health care are not as direct as this. And integration with a PAS is unusual in the UK.

“Making rapid decisions on the move is the point of this. Getting to a terminal in a hospital is inconvenient, as is carrying around lots of paper.”

Jim Mortleman is an independent writer and commentator with more than 20 years' experience covering new technologies and their implications for business and society.

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