Mobile BI: Keeping It Simple

By  Susan Nunziata — June 04, 2010

We've heard from several enterprises in recent months that mobilizing business intelligence and business process applications in real time is becoming a priority. The goal, they say, is to have back-end databases and applications such as customer relationship management, inventory management, business analysis tools in the pockets of every worker who needs them.
Enterprises have an array of choices to make this happen, including building their mobile applications in-house, working with third-party solutions providers, and involving mobile enterprise application platform developers, and/or doing all of the above.
We recently heard from Newell Rubbermaid, PwC Canada and UPS about the application development choices they made to deliver their critical business applications to BlackBerry devices.
What's the common denominator in their very different choices? Along the way they all discovered that delivering actionable business information to mobile devices and tying it in real time to back-end systems requires a whole new level of development and functionality in order to be effective for users.
Newell Rubbermaid opted to customize its SAP federated portal platform for its mobile workers. PwC Canada went with a mix of packaged solutions and in-house development to deliver its CRM service to smartphone users. UPS, which calls itself a technology company with trucks, used its own proprietary Internet framework as the basis for a customer-facing BlackBerry application its developers designed from the ground up.
At Newell Rubbermaid, the company has been working since 2009 on a mobile build-out of its SAP tools using the vendor's federated portal platform. The portal allows content from multiple back-end systems to be accessed and viewed on a single interface.
Outside customers and third-party vendors can also access elements of the solution to check on orders and stock, reducing the number of calls to customer service and ultimately increasing the organization's productivity.
"The way Federation works is that to the end user it is transparent," says Trent White, SAP Lead Web & Mobile Technologies Analyst with Newell Rubbermaid. "But in reality content is coming from three different areas: Consumer, SRM Producer and Business Warehouse Producer."
The company rolled out a mobile pilot for 50 sales reps using BlackBerry in early 2010 and has since expanded the pilot to 150 users in the U.S. and Canada. The goal is to scale the platform quickly to enable all of the company's 500-600 sales reps in the U.S. and Canada to access SAP applications on their BlackBerry devices.
The mobile tools include Business Intelligence Data Load, which allows team members to look at the data load from their smartphones. In addition, sales reps can do product inquiries from the devices, as well as locate and get directions to any Newell Rubbermaid location.
The company also enabled Universal Work List from SAP on the BlackBerry. An additional application being tested will enable sales reps do check order status from their smartphones. "If the sales rep knows customer order number, they can punch in," says Willi Candra, Sr. Manager, Enterprise Portal, Newell Rubbermaid. "If they don't know the number, they can search by customer name. This gets them to the SAP back-end information about customers.
The list of orders they see is in real time from SAP, and the sales reps can click on whichever orders they need details for." Because this is a data-intensive application, short cuts have been built in to easily access shipment information, order times and other key data. The company developed a Java-based application that streamlined all workstreams.
A customer service rep can now complete in about 30 seconds a process that used to take three minutes to five minutes per transaction. "We customized the SAP portal logon page for mobile, so it recognizes user agent and mobile URL," says Candra. "Once users log in, it uses same functionality as the Internet portal."
Candra says the biggest lesson learned is to "Pick the right use cases and scenarios. When we first brought this up, light bulbs started clicking. It's important to manage expectations. Usability is key. The number of clicks matter, input requirements matter, real estate matters. Keep it simple."
Julio Fernandez of PwC Canada, says that keeping things simple is one of the biggest challenges in mobilizing business intelligence for smartphones.
"Trying to manage expectations is something you have to work with early on," he says. "In the old application development world, you had a laptop and you connected to a server. Now, you have to worry about offline capability, low radio, security. And it's a whole ecosystem: developers, servers, carriers, devices. From an application development perspective, we never had to deal with so much before."
PwC Canada ultimately decided on a mix of packaged and in-house built solutions. "We wanted to build an extension, rather than a smaller mini enterprise system, for CRM," explains Fernandez. "We leveraged as much of the native functionality of BlackBerry as we could. There was no coding on top. This makes deployment go quicker."
UPS, which bills itself as a "technology company with trucks," takes a proprietary approach to all of its applications. The company built its customer-facing Internet portal from the ground up and so, when it decided to offer its customers the same level of order tracking functionality on their BlackBerry devices, it turned once again to its own in-house design team.
This is no mean feat, when you consider that the company processes 22.4 million tracking requests per day worldwide. "Because our development team was able to get behind the covers and understand how you do this quickly and efficiently, I was surprised at how efficient the cost of building the app was," says Jordan Colletta, VP Customer Technology Marketing, UPS.
While declining to divulge the cost, he says "it was a great bargain. "We weren't starting an app from square one," he says. "We were picking up another app. We didn't have to build a database, connections, logic -- that infrastructure was already built for"
He notes that at one point the design team did evaluate building a separate connection outside of its UPS Internet shipping capability. "It would have cost a lot more," says Colletta. "We also found that the user experience would have been disjointed. You would have user ID password, addresses -- all the stuff you had online -- and you wouldn't be able to access that from your mobile. If we're going to connect those, how much will that cost us? At the end of the day, you don't need more routines running than you need to run."
Editor's Note: This report compiles case studies presented at the BlackBerry Wireless Enterprise Symposium in Orlando in April 2010 and the SAP SAPphire NOW 2010 conference in Orlando in May 2010. 


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