It's a mobile-first world and that means mobile BI too

Niel Nickolaisen, MidMarket

If you are like me, mobile BI is somewhere on your product and service roadmap. Given the explosion in mobile devices, I suspect all of us have mobile on our minds and are either developing mobile apps ourselves or pushing our software vendors to provide mobile versions of our business applications.

Niel Nikolaisen

Niel Nickolaisen

A few years ago, I tempered my mobile plans by thinking about what it makes sense to "mobilize." Back then, mobile was for someone who was away from the office. That has all changed. Now when I attend a meeting, most participants pull out their tablets to take notes (or play games if the meeting gets boring). Thus, it seems mobile is pretty much for anyone, anytime and anywhere, including anytime and anywhere in the office.

This has caused me to change my mind about mobile. My new approach is not just mobile-first, it is mobile-only. When we do projects, we think about deployment on a tablet or smartphone. We fully expect that an increasing number of our customers might never use the PC or laptop version of the application.

This same thinking applies to everything we do with business intelligence (BI). Instead of thinking of mobile BI as a nice-to-have, it is time for us to think about mobile BI as the primary model.

As we implement a mobile-first and mobile-only strategy, it only makes sense to do the same with BI.

This can be a big change in approach -- not just for us but also for BI vendors. So, while we are changing our approach by taking a mobile-first or mobile-only approach, let's also revise our thinking about BI. For too long, the focus of BI has been on reporting and visualizations of those reports. I think our BI focus should be on improved decision making. To that end, I start every BI project by asking and answering three questions:

  • What decisions would we like to be able to make?
  • What data do we need in order to make these decisions?
  • Where can we get the data we need in order to make these decisions?

These questions focus the project where I think it belongs -- on making better decisions.

Forget the eye candy; mobile BI is for better decisions

I use these same questions when I assess and select mobile BI products and tools. The emphasis of some vendors is on the "coolness" of the user interface. The interface is important if it helps us make better decisions. If not, it is eye candy and you should move on to the next provider -- a provider that enables improved analyses.

We are in the midst of a really compelling BI project that we think will help us make better decisions about at-risk students. This project is at the heart of our attempts to individualize the student experience so that we provide every student what they need, when they need it. BI is a major component of this project, and so we started with the three questions.

In our self-paced, competency-based higher-education model, we want to make better decisions about the status of each student's learning. What data do we need in order to make such decisions? We need data about their progress through the coursework, as well as any other barriers they are encountering. We then feed that data into an advanced analytics engine (from a BI startup) that uses the data to define the relationships. We then present the university staff with those students who need the most help. This has been some of the best and most rewarding work I have done in my career.

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For a project like this, in days past, mobile BI would have been an afterthought -- something I would offer as a cool feature. But given that many of my customers now spend their day on their tablets and smartphones, we have taken a mobile-only approach and planned the entire deployment around these mobile, yet stationary users. To be honest, I am a bit shocked that I now think this way, but it has delivered two important benefits to me and my team:

We are building around a platform -- mobile-- that is the platform of the future.

It has helped us identify which vendors are as forward-thinking as we are.

As we implement a mobile-first and mobile-only strategy, it only makes sense to do the same with BI.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at nnick@wgu.edu.

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