What Is Business Intelligence?

A brief BI exploration to try to figure out what the catch-all tech term actually means.

I'll admit that the question may sound a bit...well, obvious. Like asking: What Is Word Processing? BI isn't even on Gartner's most-recent Hype Cycle chart, so it's definitely gone mainstream.

But wade a little deeper into the open seas of BI applications and development tools, and the once crystal-clear waters become murkier.

Are analytics packages BI? The charts and tables in executive dashboards? How about financial reporting? Performance-management software? Data warehousing? What about the data in Excel spreadsheets?

CIO.com's own Business Intelligence Definition and Solutions page states: "BI is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of software applications used to analyze an organization's raw data." A recent BI article on CIO.com offered this up: "Loosely defined, BI systems take vast quantities of data and put it into visually useful forms (such as graphs and charts) for sophisticated analysis of business trends."

OK. But I wanted to know more—as concise a definition as possible without the tech mumbo-jumbo. So I reached out to a couple of IT experts and asked them one simple question: What is Business Intelligence?

First up is Merv Adrian, a well-respected IT industry analyst and consultant who had former gigs at Forrester, Giga, Sybase and Information Builders. (He just wrote an insightful blog post on Oracle's BI strategy.) Responds Adrian:

Business Intelligence is the application of analytic techniques to information about business conditions in order to improve them—in an automated fashion, with human interpretation and response. The vagueness of many of these terms means that dozens of vendors and analysts can redefine the category at will—and do, often.

Next up is Steve Anthony, CIO of Charles River Associates, who was featured in my article on BI strategies. Anthony writes:

A business system that includes an effective meeting structure and accessible, accurate, timely and actionable business performance metrics / reports enabling business leaders to make informed decisions. This is easy to say, but tough to do correctly, as it involves changes regarding how businesses conduct effective meetings as well as the need for good data in order to take actions, thereby optimizing business performance.

Tom Davenport, Babson College's Distinguished Professor of Management and IT and co-author of Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results, responds:

I view BI as all the things that organizations do to make sense of data for purposes of managing an organization better. To me it includes reporting and analytics, though there is much more of the former than the latter. However, I sense that the BI term is rapidly being supplanted by "business analytics."

William Swislow, CIO and senior vice president for product at Cars.com, states:

Business intelligence is the actionable information that results from a company's key activities and can be used via aggregation, reporting and analytics to drive its businesses forward.
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