With all the hype around big data at the moment, one might easily ignore how mobile technology could lead to a huge change in the way people access and use business intelligence (BI). They may also miss its possibly profound impact on this marketplace.

If you’ve had the opportunity to monitor the BI market over the course of the last decade or two, you will have observed that the average percentage of BI users in organizations is increasing — which is good news. The bad news, however, is that the annual increase is very small and BI usage within organizations has been stuck at less than 20% for years. Although this number does vary with higher percentages in those that have invested strategically in BI, despite all the successful projects and recognition that organizations should be more data driven, BI cannot truly be called pervasive.

What’s worse in my view is that when you scratch beneath the surface of the headline figure, you will find that usage is dominated by analysts and not what I would call business users – line of business (LoB) managers such HR business partners, supply chain managers etc.

Business Intelligence has historically been restricted to what I call the information elite, analysts often based in HQ with the skills and technical knowhow to access data. But business users need to make decisions all the time and not just when they’re in the office. So how are they getting the information to make those decisions? Are they relying on those analysts, maybe on spreadsheets or just gut feel? I guess it’s probably a mixture of all of those.

The good news here is that Birst is changing all that. Designed for the web and born in the cloud, it’s easier to implement and use than traditional BI and unlike limited Data Discovery tools designed only for analysts, Birst supports a wide range of users of all abilities and requirements via the browser and the tablet.

There are, of course, cultural and political issues within an organization that prevent the widespread use of information — but that will have to be the subject of another blog!

The key factor that mobile BI addresses is accessibility to information when and where you need it. Not everybody sits at a desk, especially on the operational side of organizations and I believe that mobile access to BI is potentially one of the biggest changes we have seen in the industry since web BI was developed in the late 1990s. It’s certainly the fastest and most rapid adoption of a new technology that we have seen.

One thing that is still uncertain is which of the range of physical devices will become the dominant delivery mechanism. Tablets could dominate as the primary access device because they have the physical space to display information and provide better interactivity. However, the phone is ubiquitous, so despite its limited size, it may still become the preferred device – it will be interesting to see how this develops.

New roles for mobile BI

Many organizations are already building their BI systems with a mobile-first strategy to reflect the changing nature of work and information access.

The classic use case for mobile BI is, of course, the mobile sales person who spends the majority of their time in front of customers. Account managers can analyze client data with the customer at the customer location, interactively exploring and analyzing data and comparing their performance against others in the locale or of a similar size etc. That’s a well-known scenario, but what are some of the others?

Think about a retail store manager who is as likely to be walking the store as much as behind the desk. Imagine being able to discuss short and long term sales trends and patterns with department managers standing next to the cheese counter or in the clothes dept. It enables the store manager to spend more time on the sales floor making real time decisions. Merchandizing managers can explore their product performance with store managers while in the store, next to the display.

There are many more scenarios where access to the data at a time and a place that’s convenient for the user would drive the sort of behaviors that will lead to a data-driven culture within an organization.

Executives spend much of their time in meetings so a mobile device is the perfect way to access information when not at their desk. It’s easy to share common key performance indicators and metrics thanks to a business intelligence platform that provides a single version of the truth via that device. An executive at a Birst customer recently used their mobile BI capability to answer questions on the fly at an internal company meeting. The employees were so impressed that BI usage increased significantly following the meeting.

It’s clear to me that mobile BI is set to revolutionize how business people access and use information to support their daily decision making. It takes information out of the limited domain of the analyst or data scientist and gets it into the hands of everybody who makes decisions, whether they work in HQ or on the factory floor, whether they are senior management or a maintenance manager deciding which piece of machinery needs a change to its maintenance plan.

In the future, mobile BI has the potential to go beyond the PC experience by adding features such as location intelligence, movement tracking and integration with cameras and scanners. The future could see BI adoption really accelerate in all kinds of new directions.

Perhaps this is the key to pervasive BI that we have been searching for all along?