Intelligence on the Go: Mobile Delivery of BI

Many BI vendors now offer modules that let you deliver just about any report to smart phones, but as a major retailer, a health care provider and a major government agency have discovered, practical, tactical wins are the key to mobile success.

Doug Henschen, Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

May 19, 2008

11 Min Read

From the highest executive ranks to field sales and service people, today's knowledge workers are roaming far from their desktops. In fact, there are more than 800 million mobile workers worldwide today (more than five times larger than the entire US workforce), and that figure is expected to reach 1 billion by 2010, according to IDC.

The question is, can all those employees be as connected, well-informed and productive while away from the office as they are when seated in front of a desktop computer? As far as business intelligence software providers are concerned, the answer is a resounding "yes," but they're not banking on all those workers toting around laptops. "Smart phones" are already the business platform of choice for road warriors, and given current replacement cycles and advances in technology, it won't be long before these, e-mail-, Web- and compute-capable devices become a ubiquitous business tool.

"Within a couple of years, nearly 100 percent of mobile phones will support Web browsers and they'll be that much more powerful," says Gerald Cohen, CEO of BI vendor Information Builders Inc. "Users will be able to do anything they want on these devices as they're travelling, and that's definitely going to have an impact in ways that we can't even envision."

Five Leading Mobile BI Options



Platform Support

Business Objects, an SAP Company

Business Objects Mobile

Blackberry, Windows, Symbian

Cognos, an IBM Company

IBM Cognos Go! Mobile

Blackberry, Windows, Symbian

Information Builders

IB Mobile Favorites

Any device with mobile browser


Windows Server/Mobile



Microstrategy Mobile


Even today, many leading BI vendors offer modules (see table above) that make routine reports, alerts and KPIs accessible through mobile phones and PDAs. Early adopters Nygard (a Canadian clothier), CRC Health Group (a behavioral health care company), and NASA's Kennedy Space Center have discovered that there are huge efficiencies to be gained by delivering BI in mobile fashion. But as their stories also suggest, the real payoff is in delivering actionable intelligence. In other words, successful mobile BI is more likely to be operational BI, not conventional reporting delivered on a diminutive device.

Bottom-Up Sales Analysis

The impetus for mobile BI at Canadian women's wear giant Nygard came from chairman and CEO Peter Nygard himself. "In late 2006, he said 'I'm never in my office, so I think from now on, any time you develop an application, it's going to have to be accessible through my Blackberry,'" explains Len Nicolas, the retailer's CIO. "That started the whole initiative, and now every time we develop something, we think in terms of Blackberry."

Despite the directive from on high, Nygard's "M Biz" project is rolling out in a bottom-up fashion. The $500 million company sells women's clothing through 200 Nygard stores (about 20 percent of the company's business) as well as through Hudson's Bay, Dillards, JC Penney, Sears and other third-party retailers. More than 60 retail merchandise specialists (RMSs) keep track of sales by product line, store and chain. The RMSs are true mobile professionals who travel from store to store each day to find out what's hot, what's not and whether the stores themselves are doing a good job.

"One of the most common questions the RMSs want to know as they do a store walkthrough is 'I wonder how this style is performing?'" says Nicolas. "We built a very simple lookup application that lets them key in the style and color information on their Blackberries so they could see information on sell-through in that store as compared against corporatewide performance." Previously, RSMs typically called into the office to find out such information, sapping the productivity of two employees.

After building the home-grown lookup app, Nygard executives learned that the retailer's BI vendor, Microstrategy, was introducing a module for the Research In Motion (RIM) Blackberry platform, so it signed on as a beta customer for Microstrategy Mobile last fall.

"Microstrategy was working very closely with RIM, and they had much better insight into development languages, encryption and performance," says Nicolas. "It just made sense to move to their platform, so I hired a Java developer and started porting our lookup application over to J2ME [the development platform used by Microstrategy Mobile]."

Daily Sales Flash
Nygard's "Daily Sales Flash" reports look and behave the same whether delivered on the desktop (background) or on Blackberries
(click image for larger view)

What does it take to move reports from conventional screen real estate down to a smart phone? Nicolas says Microstrategy Mobile has eased the transition, with existing reports "looking just the same on the Blackberry as they do on the desktop," though some tweaking and tuning was required.

"We had to change the abbreviations for certain headings and we changed some font sizes, but otherwise the Blackberry offers lots of aids, like locking columns and scrolling, that make it easy to navigate existing reports," says Nicolas.

It helped that Nygard's reports are fairly flat, with minimal drill-down, and that the company has stringent report formatting standards. "Headings have to be in a certain font and are blue, totals always have a yellow background, positive values are green and negative values are red," Nicolas explains. "If we make changes in abbreviations for mobile delivery, we'll use those same abbreviations for the desktop reports."

By January 2008, Nygard had "mobilized" about 20 sales flash reports — a process that took little more than four hours per report, according to Nicolas. The reports chosen were seen as essential to the RSMs, who now save hours each week because they spend less time printing out reports and calling into the office. The next step will be to spread mobile BI up the chain of command, though Nicolas is taking a conservative approach.

"I've heard cautionary tales about executives asking, 'why are your sales doing X,' and employees responding, 'we don't even have that information yet,'" he explains. "We're introducing this slowly to the top executives because we want to make sure the troops are making use of the information at their fingertips."

Top-Down Reporting

In contrast to Nygard, CRC Health Group has taken more of a top-down approach to its mobile BI deployment, in part because its executives and managers are the ones on the road. The clinicians who diagnose and treat depression, substance abuse and troubled youth stay close to the treatment centers in 160 locations across the country.

Mobile delivery was an integral part of a first-time BI and performance management deployment at CRC. After reviewing several products throughout 2006, CRC selected the Cognos 8 platform and its Go!Mobile module in January 2007.

"We've developed a data mart and a reporting strategy, and at the top of the pyramid is the mobile information," says Jay Ramiodi, vice president and CTO. "We're reporting on key business metrics for the company, such as whether or not key patient assessments are being completed and the acuity of the patients."

"Acuity" is a clinical term for the severity of a given patient's condition, as measured by key indicators including family problems, legal problems, drug use and alcohol use. In some cases, problems across a patient population can roll up into a bigger picture.

"Let's say you're on the road and you see an office that has admitted four or five patients with a high level of acuity around employment problems," says Ramiodi. "If the primary issue is drug or alcohol abuse but we can see that it's being caused because some plant that just laid off a bunch of people, we can quickly change our treatment approach in response to those indicators."

From an administrative perspective, patient-level information rolls up alongside financial and operational indicators. These reports and metrics are consumed at various levels. CRC's chief medical officer might look at network-wide trends to come up with treatment and training programs. Clinical compliance staff ensure that government- and internal-standards around timely assessments and treatment are being met. Area managers look at qualitative measures as well as operational data on numbers of patients and assessments compared to budget. The clinical supervisors who oversee individual facilities also look at a mix of qualitative and productivity measures.

After developing the data mart and measures in the first half of 2007, CRC moved on to refining reports to be delivered both through the Web and through Go!Mobile. "Go!Mobile was crucial to us because we had already selected RIM and the Blackberry as our mobile computing platform," says Ramiodi, "The Cognos platform lets us publish to the Web and publish to Go!Mobile without changing code."

The clinical supervisors, QA staff and regional managers who oversee multiple facilities are among the most mobile of CRC's executives, and Ramiodi says they're emerging as the biggest consumers of reports via Go!Mobile.

"These people are relying more and more on their Blackberries and they're not taking their laptops along, so this wasn't just about delivering time-sensitive information; Blackberries are now the mobile information platform," he explains.

As for the depth of reporting, Ramiodi says CRC is focused on delivering the right KPIs rather than every imaginable statistic. "In most businesses, people get too much data, so the important information gets lost," he says. "Our goal is to communicate with behavioralists, who are right-brain people, and not burry them with too much data."

Preparing for Emergencies

The mobile BI application at NASA's famed Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is not quite off the ground. The agency's Launch Processing Directorate, which is responsible for launching the Space Shuttle, has been using Information Builders' WebFocus for nearly ten years. The BI platform is the foundation for five core applications: a travel application for tacking business travel, an IT purchase approval app, a budgeting and forecasting app, an auditing app and an emergency notification application. The last of these became the first priority for mobile delivery, and with good reason.

The Emergency Notification App came about in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, explains Ron Phelps, project manager in the Shuttle Project Control Office. "In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, managers in the Michoud Assembly Facility [in Louisianna] and Stennis Center [in Mississippi] had difficulty tracking down employees, finding out if they needed help and estimating how quickly they could get back to work," Phelps explains. "To preclude that from happening at the Kennedy Space Center, we developed an application to provide notification information to managers so we can clear the Center but have up-to-date contact information for our employees."

Many Launch Directorate managers were already equipped with Blackberries, so when Information Builders introduced the WebFocus Mobile Favorites add-on module late last year, it was natural to consider mobile reporting applications. And given that hurricanes warnings have forced evacuations of the Kennedy Space Center on a number of occasions, the emergency notification app was an obvious first choice; Phelps and his team focused on a few key reports.

"One of the parameterized reports let you can select a mail code for a particular organization, and it will give you the data for all the personnel within that group," Phelps explains. "Within 24 hours prior to clearing the center, the plan is to produce final reports that they can download and have available on their mobile device."

Some 25 to 30 managers are to gain mobile access to these reports so they can track some 400 employees in the Launch Directorate. Unfortunately, changing security requirements have delayed Phelp's beta project. After initial VPN sign-in and encryption requirements had been resolved, the Launch Directorate's IT team implemented the Kerberos authentication protocol, a development that has presented another technical hurdle to signing into central servers from the mobile browsers currently supported by RIM.

"We're working with Information Builders to try to figure out that the best solution will be," says Phelps. "I chose emergency notification because it's one of our simpler applications and we wanted to test it out and learn the right way to do it before trying it on something more complicated."

Once the latest security wrinkles are resolved, Phelps guesses that the travel tracking application might be the next to be mobilized so managers who are themselves on the road can keep track of subordinates and colleagues who are travelling.

Keep it Actionable

As these case studies suggest, the RIM Blackberry seems to be the favored device for BI delivery (see table above) and enterprise use in general (as confirmed by market share stats for North America). More importantly, these examples also suggest that deep drill-downs and sophisticated analyses can wait until you're back in the office. What mobile delivery of BI is all about is practical, tactical information needed to make immediate decisions.

"People are looking for information to address a particular question or to complete a transaction," says Gartner analyst Ted Friedman. "The biggest value is in operational BI — information in the context of applications — not in pushing lots of data to somebody's phone. What you want to send them is the exceptions, the alerts or what they really need to act on now."

About the Author(s)

Doug Henschen

Executive Editor, Enterprise Apps

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of Transform Magazine, and Executive Editor at DM News. He has covered IT and data-driven marketing for more than 15 years.

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