If you know anything about FileMaker, the title of this article is a dead giveaway about the nature of this story. After all, FileMaker, an increasingly popular choice for rapidly developing and deploying iOS business apps, includes a number of data charting features that were unveiled in version 11 and improved in version 12.

And while the new charting features of FileMaker  are certainly powerful, small business intelligence, which I like to refer to as sBI, is less about charting data and much more concerned with conveying near-instant conclusions about operational trends, successes, and problems.

UPDATE: The FileMaker sources for achieving the steps disclosed in this article are now available here.

Tactical or Analytical?

When we think of BI (business intelligence), it’s natural to imagine the usual suspects – displays with complex business charts and graphics that contain lots of analytical data and mashups of complex data. This is the world of traditional BI, a realm that provides deep insight into business data but which also requires close attention to details.

This is Analytical BI

This is Tactical sBI

In contrast, a tactical dashboard requires only a glance to convey the most important elements of operational performance. Tactical dashboards are designed to intentionally eliminate details and focus on conclusive operational guideposts. The fundamental nature of tactical dashboards suggests they are likely to work well in mobile use cases. FileMaker Pro combined with and FileMaker Go (the iOS app deployment framework), provides the perfect alchemy of development environment, data-centric tools, and design elements to meet the requirements for sucessful sBI solutions.

FileMaker Brings It

While it’s always been obvious to me that the fundational elements of a database development platform is generally a key advantage when building business solutions, there’s one element of FileMaker that I consider a watershed addition to the foundation that supports an entirely new realm of mobile business intelligence. This single new addition to the FileMaker platform might be voted the least likely to be asked to the prom, yet its underlying beauty is stunning.

Wake up! It’s the Frickin’ Web!

The web viewer control is the gateway to a bright future for sBI. Imagine a design control that supports Javascript, CSS3, HTML5, and which can be instrumented on the fly. This is the horizon of the web viewer control in FileMaker. And with great delight, it works seamlessly across Mac OS, Windows, and iOS. It allows developers to craft (or automatically generate) HTML code using common and well-understood open standards to essentially create any type of design object or control that may be required. In the context of this story, the focus is on sBI controls – dashboard widgets that convey data in meaningful ways.

Using script steps, it is relatively easy to create high-impact visual controls to display sBI data in any conceivable design theme. The iPad app shown above (Tactical sBI) uses 14 web viewer controls that are driven by a single FileMaker script function. Calling the script function with various arguments causes the web viewers to present simple but effective data guideposts for business managers.

The dashboard example below, uses 12 native FileMaker text controls, demonstrating that even the simplest use of text and data can transform the mobile BI experience.

Of course, the information used in the dashboard can come from FileMaker data sources or really any other data source you might imagine. In fact, this particular collection of sBI apps draw their data elements from a simple Google Docs spreadsheet that is updated by the company’s staff. Some of the data is entered manually by dispatch operators. Other data elements are compiled from other spreadsheets through automated Google Docs scripts. And some of it is scraped with precision from external web sources. Google Docs and GAS (Google App Scripts) can be a powerful active ingredient in the chemistry of sBI.

With a simple Google Docs spreadsheet parser written in FileMaker script steps, the cloud-based information serves as the primary data source for these sBI apps. As the data is updated in the cloud, the apps refresh the dashboard displays.

sBI and FileMaker

Often, the best solutions turn out to be simple chemestry; the confluence of basic ideas, proven tools, and some really useful information. In my view, FileMaker is one of the proven tools that when blended with web services such as Google Docs, hardware like the iPad, and relentlessly shapped to achieve elegant simplicity, the outcomes can prove exceptionally valuable.

sBI (small business intelligence) is a new and emerging idea made possible and desireable mostly by iPad, must be added to the short list of things every business person should have.