Strategic business intelligence for a mobile future
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Building an effective mobile business intelligence system doesn't just happen; it requires proper preparation and planning to avoid the barriers to a successful deployment. And there's no shortage of such barriers.
For example, Deepa Deshpande, a senior technical consultant at India-based software development and IT consulting services provider Persistent Systems Ltd., lists a litany of potential mobile BI hassles and hurdles. Among them: devices with small screens and limited memory, disk space and input capabilities; security protections that still aren't fully developed; inadequate backup and restore functionality; and, perhaps most problematic of all, end-user affinity for different devices and operating systems.
Richard Rothschild, vice president of information services at Pandora Media Inc. in Oakland, Calif., has encountered some of those issues in developing and delivering mobile BI applications for the sales department and other groups of users at the online music services company. In particular, he pointed to the ongoing challenge of supporting the applications on multiple mobile device platforms.
In addition, he cited two big barriers to adoption of mobile BI tools by business users, the first being disjointed data that isn't well integrated. "With different applications and data in many different places, it becomes harder for users to get the information they need to make decisions -- so you need to bring that together for them," Rothschild said.
Data delivery starts with documentation, definitions
There's also the challenge of getting the right data to the right people within the constraints of role-based security provisions. To get around that roadblock, Rothschild's team worked with executives and other business users at Pandora to document the data they needed to see in their individual roles. It also implemented a data normalization process across the company in order to get different departments to agree on universal definitions for key data elements, such as listener hours. "We needed to come up with those common definitions to make the data more useful," he said.
In a recent webcast on mobile BI trends and issues, Gartner Inc. analyst Andreas Bitterer also addressed some of the challenges facing BI teams on mobile deployments. Bitterer, who is based in Germany, said mobile business intelligence projects shouldn't just be about repurposing applications already running on laptops or desktop PCs, because the applications might not work properly on iPads, iPhones, Android devices and other smartphones and tablet PCs.
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Another hurdle is the need for a suitable systems infrastructure as well as data modeling, data integration and data quality processes, Bitterer said. He warned that a mobile BI project is "going nowhere" without the same kind of attention to data management that traditional BI systems get.
"If you think about mobile BI, it's really the last inches of a miles-long journey [for the data]," Bitterer said. "High-level executives may want cool tools and expect you to be able to roll that out, but if you haven't done your homework you may not provide the benefits."
Like other analysts, Claudia Imhoff, president of consultancy Intelligent Solutions Inc. in Boulder, Colo., sees the limited size of the available screen real estate on mobile devices as a substantial challenge for BI teams. Imhoff also pointed to device loss and other security issues as a potential hurdle, although she noted that mobile devices can be remotely disabled and are far better protected than, say, USB drives.
Mobile BI can mean a loss of control
In addition, with mobile BI, "you're talking about different technologies that you have no control over," she said. That can create headaches and uncertainties compared with running company-issued PCs on an internal corporate network.
For example, organizations have to hope that mobile BI users don't lose connectivity through their wireless carriers. And IT and BI teams typically don't get to choose which devices business users will bring into the workplace and expect to be supported. "I can't imagine a company that would say you must use a certain brand of cell phone or mobile device," Imhoff said.
Another barrier to mobile business intelligence success might seem unlikely at first glance. What if the users don't come after you've built mobile BI applications for them?
That's a possibility in some cases, according to Jill Dyché, a BI and data management consultant who now is vice president of thought leadership at software vendor SAS Institute Inc. "You'd think that because it's new, mobile BI would seem sexy," Dyché said. But, she added, there will always be business users who are more comfortable looking at spreadsheets on their PCs.
Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.
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