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Health care supply company prescribes itself mobile BI software

Realizing the ubiquity of mobile devices among medical professionals, health care supplies contracting services provider Novation LLC plunged into the mobile business intelligence movement.

Almost two years ago, Guillermo Ramas had a realization: Mobile devices are here to stay.

The sudden awareness may seem simplistic, but for Ramas, the vice president of strategy and product development for information and data services at Novation LLC, it was a watershed moment. It triggered questions about analytics usage, benefits and development for the Irving, Texas-based health care supply contracting company.

“The statistics I’ve seen suggest health care is the third-largest market adopting mobile today,” Ramas said. “We didn’t want to wait for hospitals to come to us and ask us when we’re going mobile. We wanted to be there first. We wanted to be a partner and to drive innovation around these things.”

For Novation, analytics is key. The company collects, crunches and compares health care supplies price data. Good data and cheaper price points on everything from stents to gloves provides pricing transparency. That can mean a significant cost savings for Novation’s 66,000 sites.

But Ramas’ moment of mobile clarity wasn’t simply spurred by statistics. He also observed CEOs walking around hospitals with iPads and, to his surprise, a push from doctors as well.

“Physicians will drive adoption,” Ramas said, speaking specifically of tablets. “The form factor is perfect.”

In other words, mobile devices have the potential to put Novation’s analytics directly into the hands of a primary consumer: health care professionals.

According to Howard Dresner, president and founder of Dresner Advisory Services LLC and conductor of a mobile BI survey since 2010, pushing the mobile BI experience into the hands of customers is a growing trend.

“Increasingly, more advanced functionality is starting to show up, and user constituents are getting involved,” Dresner said. “That’s moving its way down even to customers.”

In June 2010, none of Dresner’s initial mobile BI survey respondents considered delivering mobile BI to customers as a primary target. In his subsequent mobile BI survey six months later, that number changed to about 15% of respondents.

But, for Ramas, interest in deploying mobile BI isn’t simply an avenue for providing customers with data as much as it’s about providing better service.

“You can scan a bar code or check a reference and tell [your customer], ‘you’re buying this item,’” he said. “You’re serving the right information at the right time in the right way.”

Having up-to-date, visual information at the touch of a button, Dresner said, is exactly the reason for the continued interest in mobile BI.

“When you’re out in the field, you’ve got this device that can provide you with business intelligence capabilities, but it also has geolocation capabilities, it also has a camera built in,” Dresner said on a recent CIO Talk Radio program. “So, in retail applications, I’m out there in a store and I can scan a SKU, take a picture of a layout or display and store that up in the transactional database. I can also integrate this information with other transactions. So I can, based on a particular SKU, find out what my stock levels are, take a look at what’s been moving in a particular store, reallocate inventory.”

A fork in the mobile BI road
Business interest in mobile BI is matched these days by a flurry of new products from MicroStrategy, Information Builders, Birst and Tableau, to name a few.

“I don’t think any vendor out there doesn’t have a mobile offering right now,” said Dresner, who is collecting survey responses for a third mobile study -- this one on mobile computing and mobile BI -- through September. Results are due out in October.

But along with vendor product releases comes a fork in the mobile BI road: Should businesses go the route of the native application or embrace an agnostic web-based platform instead?

Mark Bradbourne, a CBIP-certified business intelligence professional, said the answer depends on the organization itself. He recommends businesses first evaluate the kinds of tools and platforms it has before taking the plunge in either direction.

“If they are standardized on a particular platform, it makes sense to go with the native app,” he said. “If the business is more agnostic, they’ll need to support all of those platforms and not just the most popular. If that’s the bottom line, it makes sense to do an HTML5 Web-based mobile platform to provide a common user experience across the board.”

Dresner agrees. While he acknowledged most users are looking for the native app experience, what really matters is ease of purchase and installation with a promise of a dynamic, visual, interactive experience.

“What people don’t want is a Web experience,” Dresner said.

Either path is met with benefits and drawbacks. A native application, Bradbourne said, can mean access to data 24/7, which is not necessarily the case with a Web-based platform. On the other hand, according to an article by Wayne Eckerson, a BI consultant and research director for TechTarget Inc.’s business applications and architecture media group, a Web-based platform can remove possible silos created in a native app environment when users download data directly to the device.

Additionally, Bradbourne said, while HTML5 is coming along, Web standards issues still remain.

Novation chooses a native app
Novation was in a unique position, in this case. As a supply contracting company, it does not have the power to standardize its customers on a particular type of mobile device. Even so, Novation noted the significant iPad adoption and chose to develop a native application.

Though it looked at other vendors -- specifically at companies that would provide a native application -- Novation selected MicroStrategy, an analytics vendor it has been working with for years.

“Our biggest concern was around the user experience,” said Ramas. “It’s priceless that a guy can go from the Web application to his mobile device and see the same sliders or charts they’re already used to. They don’t want to log on to an iPad and have to do things totally different to get the same information.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. MicroStrategy was in the process of releasing its mobile platform, which came to market in June 2010. Novation, as an early adopter, released its VHA PriceLYNX app the same day.

“They’ve done all the heavy lifting for you,” Ramas said about MicroStrategy’s mobile platform. “You can skin, brand and design the application internally so that you can submit it to Apple, but MicroStrategy gives you the building blocks. And the speed to market becomes unbelievable.”

Though Novation’s decision means fully embracing iOS and Apple products for now, Ramas said the company is open to expanding its offerings to Android devices and other platforms.

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