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7/6/2011
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Starbucks BI Test: Can Managers Beat Heatwave?

The coffee giant tests MicroStrategy technology that lets store managers act fast on insight gleaned from Web-, smartphone-, or tablet-based reports.

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Starbucks is testing a new business intelligence platform designed to enable store managers to order supplies, schedule employees, and otherwise act on information delivered through mobile devices.

The BI platform is MicroStrategy 9.2.1, an upgrade announced on Wednesday that includes a Transaction Services feature designed to take users of mobile apps and Web-based dashboards from insight to action. If Starbucks' tests work out, the coffee chain will upgrade its current MicroStrategy deployment and roll out new application-integrated smartphone- and tablet-based dashboards.

It's one thing to track inventory, sales, or staff utilization from a BI report or dashboard, but taking action usually means opening up a separate, transactional application, such as a supply chain, HR, or broader ERP system. Transaction Services employs either SQL, for database transactions, or Web services to trigger orders, approvals, tracking requests, or write-backs to various data sources. The possibilities are endless, though development work will inevitably be required to set up enterprise-specific transactions and business processes.

Starbucks recently brought MicroStrategy 9.2.1 into its IT labs in Seattle, where it is testing the potential for what-if scenario planning by store managers. Citing a hypothetical use of Transaction Services, Tom Ball, lead BI platform development executive at Starbucks, said, "If it's going to be 95 degrees tomorrow, what supplies and how many employees do we need to have a good day at the store?"

Ball said in an interview that he's hoping store managers will be able to plan for weather patterns, local events, street closures, and other scenarios and then interact with supply chain and HR systems directly from mobile BI interfaces. Why launch transactions from a BI interface when ERP systems and other apps have their own dashboards, alerts, and mobile options?

"We look at BI has the hub where we correlate information from many different systems," said Ball. "To move the analytic action to SAP or another app takes us back a step."

MicroStrategy isn't the first BI vendor to focus on transactional capabilities. Last July, Oracle's Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition 11g upgrade introduced an Action Framework designed to let users initiate business processes or other actions directly from reports or dashboards. As with MicroStrategy's Transactional Services, Web services and SQL calls are the event triggers behind the Action Framework.

A MicroStrategy customer since 2005, Starbucks currently delivers standardized dashboards to store managers, district managers, and regional directors. It also supports ad-hoc querying and scenario planning. It's a big deployment, with BI accessed by about 40,000 of Starbucks' 200,000 employees.

The chain's adoption of Transactional Services also will be dependent upon Starbucks' mobile strategy, with questions yet to be resolved around platform standards and security provisions. "It's going to be exception-based reporting on the smaller devices and richer analytics delivered on tablets, but whether it will be Slates or iPads, I don't know yet," Ball said.

MicroStrategy 9.2.1 includes several mobile security upgrades said to better support iPad and iPhone deployments. For example, encryption is now applied to data while in transit from the MicroStrategy Mobile server to the MicroStrategy Mobile client (and when it is stored on the device). An authentication mode lets administrators set apps to require secure logons. User credentials are validated against the Mobile Server while online, and against locally cached and encrypted credentials while offline. Mobile clients can now make use of certificates, which allows administrators to remotely revoke access requests from specific devices.

In other 9.2.1 upgrades, MicroStrategy Mobile has improved support for videos, graphics, Web content, PDF files, and other forms of rich content often used for education and training purposes. In addition, the vendor's Visual Insight data visualization module, which was introduced in March, has been enhanced with new map, photo, and heat map options. Visual Insight analyses can also be viewed on iPads with the 9.2.1 release.

MicroStrategy has distinguished itself over the years through large-scale deployments and early use of interactive dashboards. More recently it has been a leader on mobile BI. If Transaction Services deliver as promised, Starbucks and other customers are likely to support even broader deployments and deeper interactions through BI interfaces.

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