Business intelligence, also known as BI, is concerned with the use of services and software to transform data into business insights that can be acted on to inform your strategic and tactical business decisions. BI tools can be used to access and analyse data sets to present analytical information in charts, dashboards, graphs, reports and summaries which can be used to present insights into the state of your business.

The term business intelligence is sometimes used to refer to a set of tools that provide users with speedy access to insights about the business, based on the currently available data.

Examples of business intelligence

One of the critical parts of business intelligence is reporting, and so the dashboard is perhaps the most recognisable BI tool for most people. A dashboard is a hosted software application that automatically pulls together all of the data available into a chart that gives an idea of the current state of the business.

Business intelligence is not just about creating reports, although it also cannot tell business owners what to do or what will happen if they make a certain decision. Instead, BI offers business owners a way of examining their available data to derive insights and understand trends by streamlining all of the associated tasks – such as searching for the data, merging the data and querying the data.

Business analytics vs business intelligence

So, business intelligence gives you an insight into the current state of the business, such as where our sales prospects are in the pipeline today and how many customers we have gained or lost this month. This leads us to the key distinction between business analytics and business intelligence.

Business intelligence is a descriptive strategy, that tells us what is happening now and what has happened in the past to get us there. On the other hand, business analytics is a term used to describe data analysis techniques that are predictive – what is happening in the future – and prescriptive – they can tell you what you should be doing to create better outcomes.

This distinction between BI and business analytics really gets to the heart of the question of who business intelligence is really for. BI should be used to deliver snapshots of the current state of affairs within your business to your business managers. While business analytics requires the use of data scientists to analyse and interpret the data, one of the main BI goals is to make the data easy for everyone to understand.

What makes a good business intelligence strategy?

BI applications have traditionally been used by IT professionals, but as they have evolved and become more user-friendly and intuitive, it has enabled a wider range of users to get involved.

In fact, Gartner has identified two types of BI:

  • Classic BI – IT professionals use in-house transactional data to generate reports
  • Modern BI – business users interact with agile systems to analyse data more efficiently

Many businesses automatically opt for classic BI for certain types of reports, such as financial or regulatory reports, as accuracy is key, and the data sets and questions used tend to be predictable. Modern BI tends to be used where a business needs insight into dynamics that are quickly changing such as marketing events – where speed of response is prized more highly than data that is 100% correct.

However, despite the fact that solid business intelligence is critical to making the right strategic business decisions, many businesses are struggling to implement effective BI strategies, due to tactical mistakes and poor data practices.

The key to self-service business intelligence

The mission to make it possible for anyone to be able to get useful information from BI tools has led to the development of self-service business intelligence, a category of BI tools aimed at taking away the need for your IT department to assist in the generation of reports.

The key to success with self-service BI is the use of dashboards and user interfaces that include menus and drill-down reports allowing users to find the data and transform it in easy-to-understand ways.

There are disadvantages to self-service BI as well, in that you could end up with a mix of metrics across departments, you could run up large SaaS bills, or even run into data security issues.

Business intelligence analysts

Any business that is serious about BI needs to have business intelligence analysts on their payroll. These analysts can use all of the features of BI tools to get the data that businesses need – such as identifying where improvements can be made to increase profits or save the company money and discovering areas of revenue loss.

Even if you rely quite heavily on self-service BI tools, business intelligence analysts have an important role to play in managing and maintaining these tolls and their vendors. They can also set up and standardize the reports that your business managers need to ensure results are consistent and meaningful across your business.

The future of business intelligence

Machine learning is going to have a disruptive impact on business intelligence as augmented analytics will be added to the software in order to guide users on their queries into the available data. So, if someone looks at reports from last year’s sales they will also get predictions about next year’s sales and add a “what-if” capability. This not only enables BI systems to make more recommendations of a higher value but also enables business owners to make more accurate, efficient and powerful decisions.


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