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Mobile business intelligence and collaboration: Natural partners in an unnatural world

Mobile BI and collaboration tools are natural partners, but supporting that kind of an environment may require more philosophy than technology.

The proliferation of smartphones and tablets in the workplace is pushing businesses out of their on-premises comfort zones. It's also triggering new questions -- not only for businesses, but for vendors and consultants as well -- including this one: What is the killer app for mobile business intelligence?

"If you think back in terms of the smartphone or the phone in general, the killer app for the cell phone wasn't using it as a phone," said Claudia Imhoff, president and founder of the Boulder, Colo.-based consultancy Intelligent Solutions Inc. "What really took smartphones off and running was texting."

Imhoff and Donald Farmer, vice president of product management for Radnor, Pa.-based QlikTech, posed the question as part of their presentation on mobile business intelligence (BI) and collaboration at last month's Pacific Northwest BI Summit. But as the consultants and vendors soon revealed, the debate about what kind of application might make collaborative and mobile BI essential to business isn't necessarily a straightforward one.

Building a mobile, collaborative BI program

While mobile devices continue to grow in popularity, determining their role in a BI program can be difficult for businesses. Determining how to best support those businesses, meanwhile, can be difficult for vendors.

"There are a lot of moving parts," Imhoff said. "And a lot of them you have no control over."

The number of components businesses need to consider before rolling out a mobile business intelligence program can create a dense list of questions. Imhoff includes things like hardware concerns such as battery life, screen size and storage capacity, as well as software questions about things like design and scalability. Those challenges exist whether a business decides to outfit users with mobile devices or support a "bring your own device" (BYOD) environment.

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Plus, a powerful player needed for a successful mobile BI program is one that businesses and vendors are virtually powerless over: The telecommunications industry.

"The telecomm companies, themselves, have to be able to support what we're trying to do on these little devices," she said.

Already long, the list doesn't include what businesses will have to wade through when introducing collaborative tools into the mix. Like mobility, collaborative BI is multi-layered. Businesses need to determine what kinds of workers would benefit from the technology and what kinds of data those workers need access to, which could change based on the device itself.

"I would expect an application or a solution to take advantage of the platform," said Shawn Rogers, vice president of research for BI and data warehousing at Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates. A smartphone app, for example, might push location-based information to the user, whereas a tablet app might provide a greater level of interactivity.

But businesses also should consider how to bridge collaborative tools across the enterprise.

"We all know that customers have more than one BI tool," Imhoff said. "The problem there is that if you build collaborative BI within the toolset, then it silos the collaboration."

Ultimately, collaborative and mobile BI trigger questions on not only what kind of information should be consumed, but how that information should be consumed as well.

At the heart of mobility and collaboration

But to create a successful BI program that supports both mobility and collaboration, businesses may have to let go of the decision-making style they're used to for something more organic, according to QlikTech's Farmer.

"Mobility and collaboration is not a technology discussion," said Farmer, who specified that he was speaking from a vendor's point of view. "It's a discussion about people and human interactions."

That's because workers are -- and have been -- mobile and collaborative for a long time now. With or without fancy tools and sleek, handheld devices, employees have always congregated around the water cooler, discussed business and sought each other out for input before making a decision, he said. Vendors who claim their technology "enables" this kind of behavior are inaccurate, he added.

"All our technology can do is add to that experience: Make it better or make it worse," he said. "Our challenge, really, is how do we make that better?"

QlikTech decided to answer that question by offering a browser-based HTML 5 application. Doing so means the data visualization vendor can skirt the politics of the app store. While experts say applications run best when built specifically for the device they're running on, app stores create an added layer between the vendor and its customers. And, according to Farmer, that can become problematic when trying to update the software or when trying to remove something like a security bug.

"You can ask [them] nicely if they'll update the app," he said. "They may say yes, but that may take weeks to do. [Meanwhile,] you have a bug floating around out there until they do."

But by choosing the HTML 5 rather than the native app, QlikView is not beholden to a specific platform or operating system. That could prove to be a wise decision because, as Farmer pointed out, the IT department is not in the driver's seat when it comes to selecting mobile technology these days. Instead, the users are, especially as they purchase a smartphone or a tablet for their own personal use and bring it into the workplace.

This pattern -- also known as the consumerization of IT -- doesn't begin and end with the selection of the mobile device, according to Farmer.

"It's not just bring your own device. It's bring your own software, bring your own collaboration," he said.

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