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Is Collaboration the Killer App for Mobile BI?

What's the killer app for business intelligence? Two years after the debut of the iPad, we still don't know, though there are lots of opinions.

At July's Pacific Northwest BI Summit, industry veteran Donald Farmer teamed up with industry luminary Claudia Imhoff to speak about the convergence of BI, collaboration, and mobility.

As part of their presentation, the duo posed a provocative question: What's the killer app for business intelligence? At this point, Imhoff conceded, there's no consensus.

This isn't necessarily surprising, however. Killer apps aren't made, they're selected by a market. Consider the case of the QWERTY keyboard, which Imhoff described as a killer app for smartphones. "What really set smartphones off and running was ... texting," she observed.

In this respect, Imhoff argued, just porting BI to a mobile context is insufficient. There's nothing killer about it. "One of the things we're struggling with in mobile business intelligence is, first of all, that it's not just [a question of] repurposing what's on the desktop." For this reason, the repurposing (or porting) of an existing BI app to run on a smartphone or tablet amounts to a kind of mobile malpractice, Imhoff argued.

Few attendees took issue with this claim. As to the question of what could constitute a killer app for mobile BI, there was considerably less agreement.

Industry veteran John Santaferraro, vice president of product and solutions marketing with ParAccel, offered location awareness as a good candidate.

What matters, Santaferraro remarked during the accompanying roundtable discussion, is that "if you're mobile and you're moving, the information is there." As conditions or circumstances change, the information that's pushed out to (or served up by) one's mobile device also changes.

"It's relevant based on your location," he explained.

Harriet Fryman, director of business analytic software with IBM Corp., offered a similar, but nonetheless distinct, take.

"The job of mobile BI is to provide you what you need in your current location or context that will help you decide something," she indicated, in a post-roundtable interview. "That may be information, it may be a proposed next best action, or it may actually be an 'answer.'"

Industry veteran William McKnight, president of information management consultancy McKnight Consulting Group LLC, says it isn't simply a question of serving up location-specific information or views on an as-needed basis. There's nothing especially killer app-ish about this, at least on McKnight's terms. Rather, he argues, it's about delivering "personally relevant information" -- i.e., custom-tailored views, insights, or products -- regardless of where a consumer is or of what she's doing.

What's more, businesses want to collect and analyze as much personally relevant information as they can. This includes information about where consumers are and what they're doing. It also includes why they are where they are (or why they're doing what they're doing), McKnight notes.

It's this "why" dimension that's the killer app for BI mobility, he argues.

"People -- consumers -- are pretty willing to give up their information in exchange for relevancy. As long as they perceive it as a value-add to them," McKnight told BI This Week in a follow-up interview. "It's not just a killer app because of something like GPS. It's predictive analytics. It's even more [than this]. When you do your tweet [interactions] and your other social [interactions], you're [sending] sensor data and so on. There's so much that companies want to learn about your proclivities, and that's why we have [emerging technologies] like psychographics," he continued.

"The more [a business] can bring psychographics to bear on you and predictive analytics, they know the where, what, when, why, how, and what. That's all they could ask for," concluded McKnight.

Mobility, Collaboration, and the End of the "End User"

According to Farmer, QlikView product advocate at BI vendor QlikTech Inc., the BI apps that are most amenable to collaborative use will be selected over those that aren't. In other words, said Farmer, it isn't the business of QlikTech or of any other BI vendor to "enable" collaboration.

Collaboration happens. It's bound to happen whenever human beings get together, either physically -- e.g., around the proverbial water cooler -- or in virtual space. On Farmer's terms, to be human is to be collaborative.

At issue is the extent to which a BI tool gets in the way of human beings as they collaborate. If it's easier for humans to collaborate using Twitter or Facebook or by means of some other mechanism -- e.g., the time-tested water cooler -- then BI has failed. It's an impediment to collaboration.

"If you're talking about this quarter's numbers around a water cooler, you're collaborating around data," said Farmer, speaking on the opening day of the Pacific Northwest BI Summit. "All our technologies can do is add to that experience. Make it better or make it worse."

This gets at one key way -- in itself a kind of killer app -- in which mobility has transformed BI, said Farmer: mobility has forced vendors to revisit -- to fundamentally rethink -- how they manage, support, and deliver business intelligence. It's shifted the focus from technology to people.

"I think we need to get away from thinking about this as being a technology issue and much more about how [a BI vendor can] encourage specific behaviors in ... users [of its products]," Farmer argued.

He was especially critical of any attempt on the part of IT to attempt to prescribe -- or to control -- the terms of BI collaboration, especially in a mobile context. "If we try and force them into [using] something else, it's not going to work," he pointed out. For this reason, Farmer sees the practice of developing native apps for mobile devices as misguided. Why develop specifically for a platform that information consumers might reject or that might lock you into a technology decision?

Five years ago, for example, few could have anticipated that Research in Motion (RIM) would one day be on the brink of insolvency. "The consumers of what [IT] build[s] in [the BI] world are not passive. We have seen the end of the 'end user.' The very term 'end user' is patronizing," Farmer said in a follow-up interview. "Today, if you try to force [your information consumers] to use a BlackBerry, they won't do it, or they'll use it as little as possible. They'll bring their iPad to work and they'll use that as much as they can."

QlikTech, he explains, has a mobile-first development philosophy based on HTML5. "When IT tried to govern too strictly" by limiting the kinds of devices that employees could use, Farmer says, employees ended up using their own devices.

"If it really is 'bring your own device' out there, what are we doing? Do we adopt a kind of survival approach? [Do] we have to be chasing all of the devices out there?" he asked. "You have to decide, who is your customer? Are you going to sell to IT departments or are you going to sell -- preferably through IT departments -- to individuals?"

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