BI Goes Mobile

Delivering business intelligence apps to employee smartphones can boost customer service.

Even before his company had finished developing its first mobile business intelligence application, Manoj Prasad was deep into planning the next one.

"We could immediately see [that mobile] would be big for us," says Prasad, vice president of enterprise architecture, global applications and testing at Life Technologies Corp., a multinational biotech toolmaker in Carlsbad, Calif.

In fact, Prasad made mobile BI a 2010 strategic priority for his department. His goal was to roll out mobile applications that would allow the 800-person sales force in the field to dive deeply into data about the cutting-edge tools Life Technologies develops and sells to scientific researchers.

Making analytic tools and data available on today's sophisticated smartphones can give companies the ability to interact in real time with their customers and business partners, thereby improving service and boosting productivity.

"All enterprise companies will start moving on the mobile path," Prasad predicts. He contends that this trend will be spurred on by improvements in smartphones' ability to display graphical information and the emergence of intuitive graphical interfaces that can better handle BI visualizations.

To be sure, mainstream adoption of mobile BI has been on the horizon for a while now. Two years ago, Aberdeen Group Inc. analyst David Hatch produced a report looking at best practices in making business intelligence available on mobile phones.

Only 17% of the companies Aberdeen surveyed at that time said that they were delivering business intelligence data to mobile phones, though 78% indicated that they were interested in doing so. It looked as though the trend would gain momentum, since several BI vendors had recently introduced mobile versions of their products.

But then the recession hit, and that stymied investment in mobile BI product development and marketing, Hatch says.

But the recession didn't stop the development of mobile gadgetry, most notably the iPhone, the iPad and the various Android phones. These new mobile devices can handle the complexities of BI, Hatch says.

Companies are responding aggressively. In a May 2010 Aberdeen survey, 23% of the 146 companies polled said that they now have a mobile BI application or dashboard in place, and another 31% said that they plan to implement some type of mobile business intelligence within the next year.

At Life Technologies, end-user demand pushed mobile BI to the top of the list of business strategies, Prasad says. In response, Prasad asked his architecture team to look for ways to get data from SAP BusinessObjects and IBM Cognos BI systems onto employees' BlackBerries and iPhones.

The team suggested Mellmo Inc.'s Roambi, a data visualization app that takes BI data from various sources and makes it iPhone- and iPad-friendly. Prasad asked an architect and a developer on his team to use Roambi to develop two reports -- sales quotas and daily sales reports -- that are important to Life Technologies' salespeople.

"I showed it to the CIO, and he got excited. And we showed it to some customers, and they got excited too," says Prasad.

A test version of a system showing daily sales reports taken from Life Technologies' Cognos data warehouse was rolled out this spring to some 50 salespeople with iPhones. Roambi doesn't work on BlackBerries, so Prasad's team plans to use the mobile version of Cognos to deliver similar functionality to the sales department's BlackBerry users.

Prasad already has his team working on other applications, like a global warehouse report, and has set up a mobile development architecture team to devise an entire mobile strategy for Life Technologies, with a particular emphasis on business intelligence.

Airport Data Takes Flight

If Life Technologies is a mobile BI newbie, Germany's Fraport AG counts as an experienced veteran.

Fraport, which runs Frankfurt Airport and several other airports worldwide, started a BI project six years ago, says Dieter Steinmann, senior manager of business systems there. The initial goal was to provide information from around the airport -- data about flight departures and arrivals, wait times at security checkpoints, and reasons for delays -- to employees in operations every five minutes, 24 hours a day.

In 2008, Fraport made that data mobile and delivered it to some 100 operations and customer relations managers at Frankfurt Airport, which served more than 50 million passengers last year and is Europe's third-busiest airport.

About 800 employees can now access information from a SAS Institute Inc. BI system via their phones. "When managers can get some actual information on the actual situation, it helps them make better decisions," says Steinmann.

For instance, through May of this year, 68% of the flights at Frankfurt Airport were on time. But that means that 32% of the flights weren't on time. Managers who meet with airlines to discuss the reasons for delays used to have to retreat to their offices to find data about delays affecting specific flights; they typically don't carry laptops into meetings, Steinmann says.

But they do carry BlackBerries, and now they can use those devices to instantly find out what happened to cause a delay, including whether the airline itself played a role. Knowing the answers immediately means that problems can be resolved faster.

Steinmann says that Fraport needed to do relatively little work to get the data from SAS 9 onto the BlackBerry platform -- some XML coding and style sheets, worked up by a student intern who did the project as part of his master's dissertation. It was a "quick and not-very-expensive" way to do it, says Steinmann, who later hired the intern full time.

For the mobile version of the BI system, Fraport did need to limit the quantity of the information that would be made available, and it couldn't use as many graphics as it did in the desktop version. But the managers took to it. Steinmann says they use it as a way to show customers, "I have the information you need, I have it right here, and I have it in color."

It also serves as a feather in the IT department's cap, he notes, since the application both looks good and works well.

Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based outside of Boston.

This story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an earlier version that first ran on Computerworld.com.

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