Finally, pen to paper moment (metaphorically at least). Having worked in the Business Intelligence industry for a number of years and being privileged to engage with clients through the entire Software Development Lifecycle, spanning from envisioning and conceptualisation through to delivery and realisation of solutions which fundamentally redefine the relationship between business users and data, I have been increasingly intrigued by the advent of Big Data and Mobility.
Whilst there is ample material available to discuss each of these individually, I struggled to find something which seeks to understand the relationship between the two and specifically in Business Intelligence terms. If this wasn’t enough to reduce the search results returned from Bing, I also wanted a business perspective on this. After resorting to the remaining household brands in search engines I finally conceded and as is often the case with great inventions, set out to build my own J
With the above serving as a useful prelude of what is to follow and hopefully an appropriate qualification of the ensuing content, I would now like to switch the focus to the topic under consideration, convergence of Big Data and Mobility. Before we take the plunge and for avoidance of any doubt, on this instance I will not seek to digress into the technicalities associated with the implementation of such a solution. Instead I would like to draw on my experiences of talking to clients about business challenges and the associated solutions which are developed as far as the shine of the whiteboard and smell of ink, with steady streams of caffeine in between. I will look to expand this in to the technical realms and draw on my development experience in a separate piece.
So why write about Big Data and Mobility and not Politics and the Economy perhaps? My experience may be the delimiting factor of course and an attempt at the latter may stagnate with repeated mentions of the expression “it’s the economy, stupid!”. Given my experiences of working with clients and prospects, discussions evolving around Big Data and Mobility have been the natural evolution in many cases and an intriguing phenomena with others. As a broad observation, businesses are already attuned with insights from structured and what we tend to think of as conventional systems through common Business Intelligence architectures, often in the form of Data Warehouses and presentation layers supporting reporting and analytical capabilities but are either fending off the data challenges presented by Big Data and contending with the thrust of social and enterprise mobility.
Before we go any further, let’s define the terms Big Data and Mobility.
A term which is often used with a multitude of different intentions and interpretations. System vendors are infamous for pedalling this in a way which is compatible with their software but my working definition of the term is that it is a relative state for individual organisations and is reached once the capacity of conventional systems has been exhausted by the demands placed upon it by the data. One could argue that, this would be the case with organisations that have very old hardware and simply require a refresh. This is not the situation I am eluding to and instead referring to the noticeable volume, variety and velocity manifestation of such data. In practical terms it often refers to unstructured data, social networking data, video and audio transcriptions and click stream logs amongst other similar data sources. When taken collectively, this presents this slightly amorphous state of Big Data.
Here is a formal definition provided by Gartner as available here
“Big Data is the term adopted by the market to describe extreme information management and processing issues which exceed the capability of traditional information technology along one or multiple dimensions to support the use of the information assets. Throughout 2010 and into 2011, big data has focused primarily on the volume issues of extremely large datasets generated from technology practices such as social media, operational technology, Internet logging and streaming sources. A wide array of hardware and software solutions have emerged to address the partial issue of volume. At this point, big data, or extreme information processing and management, is essentially a practice that presents new business opportunities.”
Again, another nebulous term which is often referring to hardware, software, remote working and cloud services interchangeably. For the purpose of this blog, I shall be using this term to discuss the adoption of business applications deployed through mobile devices of varying form factors. The emphasis will be placed on the mobile nature of these applications and the purpose of these applications could be to support line of business activities such as order taking or analysis to support the search of products, reviewing account history, forensic pipeline management, etc.
Big Data, Mobility and the progressive enterprise; how it all comes together
A holistic appreciation of the convergence in Big Data and Mobility, requires us to take note of some fundamental changes taking places in the domain of technology, work, social collaboration and economics which has resulted in the redefinition of business models. I shall now turn to a brief discussion of these and their relevance to the topic at hand.
With economic and competitive pressures blighting the fate of many businesses and causing grave concern for others, I sense a genuine desire on the part of businesses to work much closely with their customers. Examples from my personal life include the recent purchase of a new sofa suite where the salesman no longer disappeared into a back office to contend with a slow system whilst he locates the preferred suite and leaves me pondering over whether I should defer the purchase (post purchase dissonance syndrome as known in Marketing-speech), instead the salesman was armed with a tablet device which churned through thousands of combinations to provide us with suitable options whilst seated on our preferred sofa. We continued to make our selection and eventually completed the entire purchase process without moving from the comfort of this sofa and by which time I was convinced that it was even comfortable enough to endure my tenure through the long haul of a five day test match. Another example is car showrooms where again the sales teams are wanting to seize the moment when a customer is enticed by the right vehicle and drive the whole search, selection and purchase process there and then; “Doing business in the moment” as our technology partner often refers to it. There are a multitude of additional examples ranging from mobile banking through to tracking my progress in the gym.
These anecdotal examples from my personal life have a resonance with my wider commercial experience. The ability to work in such close proximity with the customer through fusing these processes onto a simple device brings with it technological simplification but more importantly an unparalleled focus on the customer. This allows the sales force to eke out every grain of value from these increasingly precious touchpoints whilst providing a real point of differentiation and an extraordinarily spectacular customer experience.
This liberation from the desktop and the privilege to work with the customer in this fashion places unprecedented demands on these mobile devices. The form factors of the device should be such that it is appropriate for the given interaction. For instance, the small screen of a mobile phone would not have been suitable for the selection of our sofa suite and the larger size of a tablet device would be inappropriate for me to carry to the gym. Additionally, despite the incredible reduction in size when compared to the desktop, our soaring expectations of performance have continued unabated. There is a powerful body of evidence suggesting that we are increasingly impatient when it comes to the responsiveness of a mobile device; we are much less forgiving on page loads and waiting for applications to process. A few seconds of waiting will now lead to the abandonment of the application and take users to the next item on their list. This dynamic needs to be considered in the context of the wider theme of this blog, which includes Big Data. There is a tacit contract between users and app vendors to not only provide a first class user experience deployed through these mobile devices but also to process incredible volumes and diversity of data in the process. The ensuing paragraphs will elaborate on the challenges presented by Big Data but it was important to note the inextricably linked nature of what we have come to expect from mobile app experiences and the data challenges that it is expected to overcome in providing this.
With economic and competitive distresses being felt by businesses around the globe, the inclination to cut costs and reduce prices can be excused as an initial reaction. However, strategically focussed businesses are relentlessly focussed on improving their understanding of the customer and doggedly pursuing their objectives to maximise value from every customer interaction they are privileged to have.
In a similar vein sales forces in business-to-business relationships are also being encouraged to spend a greater amount of time with customers and prospects which in many cases sees them working away from a “traditional” office on a permanent basis. It is paramount that the productivity of this remote workforce is maintained as well as the social fabric of the organisation making them feel a sense of identity and belongingness. Having managed a team of field-based consultants I am acutely aware of the significance of this and its direct correlation to performance, morale and attrition rates. The chilled beers will only win you temporary accolade I hasten to add. The discussions in the point above are wholly applicable here as organisations seek to empower their workforce and continue to exploit the value to be derived from every touchpoint with clients and prospects. It is therefore imperative that the salespeople in this example have access to timely information which allows them to be well informed about matters such as account history and business requirements allowing these to be the focus of any business meeting. Whilst this particular example relates to a Business Intelligence scenario, it is also possible that a deal may need to be transacted whilst on client-site. Hence the empowerment of this work force stretches beyond merely consuming information and extends to transactional activity and thereby significantly improving the productivity of a sales person and the results emanating from prospecting activities.
Again to pick an example from my personal experience, I was recently visited at home by my financial advisor to discuss the renewal of my mortgage product. Not only was he able to take me through the relative merits of the many hundreds of different offerings through a simple ranking chart based on the criteria of interest to me but then submit an application and attain a decision in principal right there at my home at around 7 in the evening. There was no requirement to reconnect “back at the office” and for a decision to reach me 48 hours later. I will graciously reserve any comment on the outcome of the mortgage decision and the state of my credit worthiness.
The traditional office as a permanent base has become a chapter for the history books and businesses are reorganising their workforce to drive maximum customer value and orientate themselves in favour of their addressable market. Mobilising (colloquially speaking) the workforce in this way requires equal consideration to the equipping of these resources and ensuring that collaboration, communication and productivity is preserved despite the geographically disperse nature of those involved. Businesses applications must embody this new organisational trait and heed to the attributes raised above. Perhaps it’s also apt that I am authoring this blog from my home office at 9pm!
Consumerisation of Information Technology and the social influence
Whilst some of the requirements discussed above could be fulfilled by laptop devices, increasingly users have access to unprecedented power and sophistication through their mobile phones and tablets. Most of us make routine use of these in our daily lives, be it to connect with our social networks, updated statuses, manage our financial affairs, send and receive messages and even occasionally to make calls. Whilst consciously observing its usage over this weekend, I would go as far as suggesting that they have already earned the status of a ubiquitous device which is pertinent to many practicalities of life. These personal experiences are constantly challenging the business experiences which typically fall short of this and I tend to refer to this as the symmetrical lives of individuals where the application experiences are at polar opposites when it comes to on-work and off-work experiences. The positive effects of this influence can readily be seen through the social manifestation of application vendors where features such as like, follow, connect and comment are becoming commonplace within business applications. I was recently discussing the deployment of Business Intelligence with a client where the key criteria was to deploy it on Tablet devices to a corporate wide workforce of 2000 users and meld this into the incumbent corporate social network and identity management infrastructure. Whilst there are many laudable examples of such mobile application implementations within businesses, my experience suggests that they are patchy, embryonic and usually the poor relation to their counterpart. They are often restricted and disjointed, requiring users to revert to desktops at a certain stage of the process and continue to be unsupported in many cases. The bring-your-own-device culture thrust upon organisations and users inclination to increasingly use these for business applications coupled with IT’s lag in supporting this has in many cases prompted this lukewarm response from IT. The promise of Mobility remains unfulfilled and calls for a rigorous structure of governance to ensure that this is properly embraced as part of an overall enterprise IT management strategy. The capability to seamlessly include Mobility in the overall IT estate is now available along with the ability to remotely manage and maintain these applications much like conventional applications are handled.
These pressures that I refer to along with the symmetrical divide in system experiences is also commonly referred to as the “Consumerisation of IT”. I am unsure on who to credit for this but it’s certainly not a phrase that I have coined. The gauntlet has been thrown down to application vendors and the joust has begun, with business applications providing an equally immersive experience and the liberty to run these across a device of the users’ choice.
I have already touched on the social use of technology and specifically the role of social networks in our personal lives but businesses are also adopting this in their droves. Social networks in their various guises continue to present tremendous opportunity for businesses as they are increasingly embraced by the masses and hold a wealth of data. With brand and positioning being at the forefront of business considerations, what users say or do not say about you matters. There is an increasing body of evidence which points to the influential role of social networks in both search and selection of products and services. I recently read about a household brand which is extremely sensitive about the quality of its products and to this end is proactively polling twitter updates to detect any compromise in this. Any leads are swiftly followed up to ensure that the defect never becomes a mainstream issue and adversely affects its brand position.
As indicated by this example, within this social data is a crucial source of information, differentiation and promotion when used in the right way. Driving insights from the huge amounts of data amassed by these networks has been incomprehensible until now as technological and economic considerations have meant that organisations have had to compromise between the extent of data they can handle and the exorbitant costs that are incurred in the process. This equilibrium is set to rebalance with the costs associated with such endeavours gradually being eroded through breakthroughs in technology and yet demands seeing a surge in the face of rampant and unabated growth in data volumes. Social networks are just one example of an application that produces enormous volumes of data, we then have the increasing web footprints of organisations where not only is there a requirement to capture and understand event-based data, i.e. what was purchased and when but also the “incidental data” or as I like to think of it, the contextual data; no longer do we want to keep at arm’s length from this extremely valuable information. Through a proper understanding of click sequences and more recently hover-over activity are we able to understand the buyer behaviour and how this can be influenced. The same concept rings true for physical outlets where again there is a growing interest in the traffic density and flow around the stores. This can be properly understood through GPS tracking of coordinates and its relativity to product locations. This offers palpable business value and is another contributor to the Big Data phenomenon.
Of course all of this needs to be coupled with the data produced by our core systems and again perhaps at a level of detail that wasn’t previously possible.
The emergence of the Cloud is worthy of a separate blog but its omission from this discussion would be tantamount to being economical with the truth. Interestingly the Cloud is both a propagator and solution to Big Data. Its propagating nature has already been acknowledged through the proliferation of social data but it is increasingly being turned to as a solution through the provision of flexible and economic alternatives to capital purchases of hardware and software to help address the challenges presented by Big Data. The advent of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model has meant that the shackles have been removed from businesses trying to provision externally-facing applications and in that pursuit having to address the audacious matters of security, scalability and elasticity of demand. SaaS and the web services protocols has made the consumption and sharing of data a very simple and unified process which is being leveraged to create immersive application experiences where the user is served with rich and contextualised information. The proliferation of mobile devices throughout organisations has already been mentioned along with the bring-your-own-device culture but this needs to be properly embraced by providing seamless application experiences across this range of devices and allow users to very easily switch from one platform to another. The Cloud is becoming renowned for this and ridding IT departments from having to develop this in-house.
I have personal experience of web services through the consumption of a weather feed which is integrated with my calendar allowing me to plan events whilst being aware of the likely weather conditions. Those of you familiar with the UK climate will know how much we cherish the few weeks of sunshine we get on our shores. A further example includes a mapping application which is overlaid with traffic information allowing me to easily identify sticky points and navigate around these without impacting my journey times. I have also considered the inclusion of Point of Interest data on this, providing knowledge of local events or Schools which are likely to attract localised congestion at certain times of the day. Many of these datasets are freely available and add real value to business applications through augmenting internal data with very useful context.
The Cloud in both its public and private format is poised to play an increasingly significant role in addressing the challenges posed by Big Data and in a complimentary role, become the platform of choice when it comes to provisioning applications which will be seamlessly deployed across devices and platforms.
With economic and competitive considerations continuing to dominate boardroom discussions, the determination to maximise business value through everything at their disposal has never been greater. Businesses are increasingly turning to data of all sizes and variety for this competitive advantage. The size, variety and velocity attributes of this data which ranges from internal systems to clickstream behaviour on the web site and ebbs and flows of traffic within a store to the extremities of what is being said about you on social networks and videos is now all included in the extended ecosystem of an organisations dataset. This challenge collectively has been acknowledged as Big Data.
In parallel to this is the surging adoption rates and levels of sophistication being packed into mobile devices. Coupled with this is a mobile workforce which is spending increasing amounts of time with customers and away from the office. This calls for an elegant user experience supporting this remote workforce whilst processing unprecedented volumes and variety of data to satisfy this ever-impatient consumer.
Finally the proliferation of these mobile devices needs to be tamed through the application of a coherent Enterprise IT Management strategy which addresses the challenges of safeguarding and maintaining organisational software and hardware assets.
Therefore in conclusion, data volumes are surging as is our inclination to use mobile devices for business applications. Technology has achieved momentous advances on both of these fronts and it is now for individual organisations to determine what this means for the future of their business.