BURLINGTON, Mass.—As the 15 students filed into his MicroStrategy’s mobile business intelligence class, Glenn Schurter he took attendance by tapping on his iPad as each announced his or her name. Previously, he had to enter that data in an Excel spreadsheet and email it to a MicroStrategy employee—“some poor soul at HQ” in Tysons Corner, Va.—who inputted data from dozens of such spreadsheets. Now that data is compiled automatically.
That’s a small but telling example of the ways in which companies can make mobile applications improve efficiency. Companies can do the same for their own needs, but first they have to know what they want to do, as well as the mechanics for how to do it. MicroStrategy has organized a series of free classes, from Buenos Aires to Brisbane to Budaörs, Hungary, that aim to teach those mechanics. Short on lectures and long on hands-on work, attendees have a chance to play around with app-building before buying the software or launching a project.
“This gives them a sense of what’s possible,” said Schurter, a senior sales engineer. In his class on Sept. 26 at a MicroTek training facility about 18 miles north of Boston, business and IT professionals from a variety of businesses spent the day working through MicroStrategy’s step-by-step exercises on how to build an app, with features like an interactive grid, a time-series visualization of data, working links, eye-pleasing logos and other details.
The class was aimed at business people, not programmers. In practice, building an app is similar to building a PowerPoint presentation, Schurter said. It’s a matter of understanding the tool set and working through a relatively straightforward process. The class starts at a basic level, and the apps don’t require any code-writing expertise.
In class, students were instructed to download an iPhone app provided by MicroStrategy. The exercises had students imagine they were regional managers of a retail chain, and they needed to keep up with sales metrics while they were on the road.
An early exercise had them convert a grid of 12 months’ sales information into a line graph. Their workbooks prompted them to convert a report into a data grid on their PCs, and from there, students selected options that converted the dense, large grid into a mobile line graph that more easily conveyed the same information. Because the system allows flexibility to make any kind of time-interval chart—such as day, month, year—the students could learn the process of creating such a chart for the time period they found meaningful.
After running the programs, students could view their data prepared using the PCs on their own mobile devices. Gradually, students’ screens filled with maps, bar charts and trend line charts as they learned how to manipulate the controls and organize the data MicroStrategy had given them for the purpose. Most brought their own mobile devices, mostly iPhones, to work with—MicroStrategy provided some for those who were without—and so were able to have a relatively “real-world” an experience within the class.
Students from a Range of Industries
Students were business analysts and IT professionals from organizations in higher education, finance and medical data industries, among others. By getting a feel for the app-building process, attendees said they could also get ideas for how to tailor mobile apps to their own needs. Some companies had specific goals in mind—a higher education institution, for example, was exploring more mobile intelligence options for students, including an app for students to get updates and place orders for their campus meal plans. In most cases, businesses were mulling how to build mobile apps for easy data access and interactive reports.
Attendees were largely positive about the experience, mostly working through the examples without trouble. One attendee, who declined to provide his name, said while his company had gone to plenty of mobile BI seminars and lectures, this class was more involved: “This is getting to the nitty-gritty of it, which is what we want to see.”
Mark Levitt, director of enterprise software and communications at Strategy Analytics in Newton, Mass., said the “hands-on” sales pitch from MicroStrategy is one more way to get potential customers to engage with the product themselves, and figure out how to apply it to their own situations.
“BI is becoming more democratized,” he said. The tools are easier to use, and businesses have a better understanding of how mobile BI should work. Product demonstrations like this offer use-case scenarios for potential customers to consider—as MicroStrategy did with its examples—but those customers are likely gaining an understanding of where to start with the technology in their own companies.
Levitt and Schurter both emphasized that companies should have a solid understanding of what mobile BI is for – it must be targeted to a specific audience, must be tied to a business goal, and that, above all, it must be used simply and quickly. “It isn’t simply building a Web-based experience on a mobile device. It’s building a targeted app,” Schurter said.
Laura Schreier, a freelance writer based in Boston, can be reached at email@example.com.