Building data warehouses for mobile access is no small feat

Mobile access to enterprise data warehouses can unlock lots of useful information for workers on the road, but a good user experience is essential.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Enterprises allow tablets and smartphones to tap into their data warehouses to give remote workers quick access to the data they need, but building an effective one that employees want to use is no small feat.

When an enterprise is building a data warehouse, it creates a repository that comprises information from disparate applications and systems.

For a user, having that company data in a back pocket, or an iPad case, can be a powerful tool if the data warehouse is built properly.

"Corporate data warehouses are kind of like the Grand Canyon," said Tony Gazikas, vice president and chief information officer of Haemonetics Corp., a Braintree, Mass.-based blood management company offering devices, services and software. "You start them one day and continue to work on them forever; a comprehensive data warehouse isn't like a project [with an] endpoint."

Part of that continued work at Haemonetics will be deciding what other critical data iOS users should be able to access, as well as providing reporting mechanisms for users.

"Data warehousing really is a continuum of providing insights and analysis into what's happening in business dynamics," Gazikas said. "It's a never-ending cycle."

Building data warehouses that appeal to users

Easy-to-use mobile devices may be the key to better, smarter data interaction for some enterprises, but users really want what comes out of a data warehouse to look nice and be easy to access.

"User delight in using systems is critical to us," Gazikas said. "It's a critical piece of what we do."

For Haemonetics, that user experience has been essential over the past two years, as the company has upgraded its network, added a secure VPN and network access control, and implemented mobile device management to offer widespread mobile access to employees.

Users access Haemonetics' Oracle-built data warehouse through an Apple front end on their iPad browser.

"It makes for a very pleasurable environment," Gazikas said. "Other apps that we use for managing software don't have front ends that work well on a mobile device."

In those cases, the IT team doesn't encourage users to access them from a mobile device unless they can re-engineer an improved user experience.

It's hugely helpful that accessing the data warehouse through iOS devices is a smooth process for users. And doing the back-end reconstruction around improving Haemonetics' mobile capabilities was a no-brainer for Gazikas.

"I took a look at grandparents using the technology and decided it was the right time to do it," he said. "If using mobility is that ubiquitous, the idea that you wouldn't support it in business is completely foreign to me. It's somewhat irresponsible not to drive very hard toward that ease-of-use endpoint."

Combining a staid collection of data with a fleet of sleek devices paid off very well for retailer Guess Inc. -- after they closely examined the user experience.

"Getting people to adopt a data warehouse is hard," said Michael Relich, Guess executive vice president and CIO, at the MIT CIO Symposium in May.

Guess created a data warehouse and hired a graphic designer to update "boring" dashboards several years ago when employees were using only BlackBerry devices. That friendly dashboard has helped to entice users to tap into the databases and keep them coming back.

When iPads came along, Guess had to switch to a non-Flash app. Relich calls that app the "most impactful" recent piece of technology at Guess that has been widely adopted by the company's end users. The app allows users to scan barcodes, make line sheets and create reports that can be emailed to customers.

Next, they'll extend the technology so users can take mobile orders, too. Previously, the company had used Excel for data access and management.

"We took an outdated process and made it much better," Relich said. "It wasn't part of our strategic plan, but it needed fixing; it's a real game changer."

The company won a TDWI award for its data warehousing efforts in 2011.

Building an effective mobile data warehouse

Rich analytics and enticing graphics may draw in users and help improve their productivity, but how do organizations identify tangible benefits of collecting and opening up data for mobile users?

For Relich at Guess, the return on their investment shows itself in fewer meetings and availability of more valuable data, such as detailed information about best-selling products and the ability to see that information cross-cut by date and store location.

"We're moving away from intuition and toward data-driven decisions," he said.

Speedy access to information through a tablet rather than laptop helps executives at Haemonetics.

"If you can get info remotely and you can act on it quicker, you can take the business further," Gazikas said. Still, "a dollars and cents value of that speed is harder to quantify."

Measuring the benefits of mobile data access came down to efficiency for Liberty Mutual Global Services. The company has implemented mobile data warehouse access for its field workers, who can take and upload photos of buildings on the go. Those pictures are checked against models in the company's vast stores of data, and insurance underwriters and risk engineers come back with pricing very quickly.

"Things that would have taken days to make decisions [on] now literally take hours," said Mojgan Lefebvre, senior vice president and CIO at Liberty Mutual Global Specialty, at the MIT CIO conference.

Are data warehouses worth the effort?

Still, the upgrades, device support and management involved in connecting mobile devices to company data are big undertakings.

"There has to be a use case for it to be worth it," Redman said. "It can increase productivity and save money, but evaluating the use case and how it will affect your business is the hard part." The ROI for basic mobile access is hard to measure, he said, but "where it becomes interesting is around how you can support collaboration and more enterprise capabilities."

For Haemonetics users, data warehouses are an important way to access past and present information.

"When we combine seeing our history and understand what's happening now in real time, we can then start to predict the future," Gazikas said.

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