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5 Mobile BI Myths

by Michael Saucier, CXO/President, TransparaFriday, June 25, 2010

Mobile Business Intelligence is like a small child.  Everyone seems to have some level of interest (some think it is cute while others show a passionate interest and almost giddy behavior around it) and it is growing faster by the day.  However, and also like a child, it is growing in a clumsy way and as it tries to mature, everyone (vendors, customers, analysts, etc.) seems to be telling it how to behave and what it should be when it grows up.  In the case of mobile BI, this confusing guidance has spawned several myths that we feel need to be explained.

We also recently read a great post by Hannah Smalltree at searchbusinessanalytics.com called Mobile Business Intelligence – Will it take off (for real, this time)?  Again, a good read, but it highlights many of the issues that still hinder the adoption of mobile BI (for now) and make it hard for customers to implement and get value from.  Even the story she highlights as a “success” is riddled with flaws in our opinion.  This has to be overcome before Mobile BI can really hit the mainstream.

Blackberry Bold Showing Performance DashboardHere are 5 myths about mobile business intelligence that should be considered by vendors and customers alike:

  1. Why do BI vendors keep assuming that software has to be installed on the device?  Somehow most companies in the industry have ignored how powerful the browsers are on these new devices, and I’m not just talking about the iPhone and the iPad.  Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone, Android, Palm, etc. all have really powerful browsers that can accomplish nearly everything that an app can without putting software on the device (and this gets even better with HTML 5 on the horizon).  Do we have to remind software companies how hard it is (for the vendor and the customer) to create and maintain a new version of your app for every device that gets released?  There are hundreds.  It is impossible.  Oh, and if you solve for the phone’s browser you also get the desktop solution for free (and new devices like the iPad).  Some might say security is an issue, but it isn’t and here’s why.
  2. Why does everyone assume there needs to be a big project to accomplish all of this?  We expect it is because most of these vendors make the majority of their money on services (the custom project that was referenced was $30,000, which was quite small, but still involved low-value services work which was unnecessary).  This is unfortunate, because when done right from the beginning, most key metrics can be viewed, in context and from all of the right angles, in just a few key screens (which should be generated on-demand, not custom coded in the project), especially when those KPIs are operational in nature.  Key “views” always include:

    • What is the state of my x (business, factory, asset, profit, product, supply chain, etc.) at a glance? (in our case, a % rollup view of all KPIs in a group)
    • What is the current value of a key individual metric? (Should be on almost all screens; See Fig. 2-6)
    • How does it compare with its expected value (thresholds, limits, etc)? (Should be on almost all screens; See Fig. 2-6)
    • What does this value look like compared to other similar KPIs? (See Fig. 3, 4)
    • What led up to this point? (Trend and history; See Fig. 2, 4)  This leads you to…
    • Are things likely to get better or worse given the trend? (See Fig. 2))
    • How does this trend compare to itself in prior periods? (See Fig. 4)
    • Am I alerted when something is particularly bad or good? (monitoring, alerts via email or text; See Fig. 6)
    • Who is responsible for this KPI and who do I alert?  (See Fig. 6)

Collection of Mobile Dashboard Screenshots

  1. Mobile BI should focus on operations data, not future planning data.  Traditional BI (OLAP cubes, data mining, hard-core analytics) often looks at planning data and also focuses on huge problems that need deep analysis (e.g. how many people might buy an iPad if we build it?).  This is hardly the right application for the mobile platform.  Think about what people care about on their phones, regardless of what is possible:  email, Twitter, getting directions, text messaging, sports scores and breaking news – all of these are operational, or “here and now” metrics.  If you are going to analyze hundreds of variables around future planning scenarios, you are going to want to be in front of a big monitor with plenty of time and a pile of empty Mountain Dew cans – this does not make an ideal fit for the mobile scenario.
  2. Mobile BI need not be rocket science.  Most vendors we run into think mobile BI applications need to be wildly customizable.  We respectfully disagree.  My second bullet above highlights this.  Transpara’s Visual KPI application has been running with customers’ data in industries as diverse at utilities and power generation, oil and gas refining, data centers and biotech and we talk with those customers all the time.  The funny thing is, we almost never get comments like “if only I could make a new screen that had x in it” which for a long time even worried us.  Are they even using it, we thought?  Turns out they were, and the screens we created showed them all of the key metrics in the right way.  Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t have a significant list of improvements to make (we do, and so does everyone else) but it does highlight how straightforward mobile BI software must be in order to deliver value.
  3. Mobile BI software is not just a front end client to traditional BI.  Again, read bullet 3 above about operational data.  Traditional BI is a great source of data for a mobile business intelligence solution, but they are most often not a 1:1 match and certainly not exclusive to each other.  The ideal mobile solution often includes marrying multiple data sources to create that real-time solution.  For example, get some thresholds or limits from deep analysis in your data warehouse but combine that with some real-time data from a streaming database, historian, or even a traditional database that is refreshed faster for a true “here and now” mobile application.  With the right solution, this is much easier than you think.

If you would rather read about some of these myths in the form of a case study, ControlGlobal.com just wrote one about Mohawk Fine Papers called Information Everywhere on a Blackberry which does a great job of highlighting some the key elements.

We could go on for weeks on this topic, and there are certainly more myths we could write about.  What is most important is getting an understanding of how powerful business intelligence should be on a mobile device and how much differently it should be treated than traditional uses for business intelligence. 

About the Author

Michael Saucier
CEO, Transpara Corporation


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