What is BI?

There are a lot of definitions for what business intelligence stands for and what scope it encompasses, in fact, the definition seems to depend on your entry point into the business intelligence arena – implementer, consumer, maintainer, etc. What pushed me to make an entry on this subject is a discussion I had with a co-worker about custom application development and UI. We were talking a lot about customer perception on how an application should work, how to look at workflows and make an app mimic that workflow when the question popped up on where the boundaries are for business intelligence – from his point of view, and the customer group we were working with, BI looked very esoteric, egg head and as one lady coined it "just some executive data".

Does BI really look that strange to people? Looking at a lot of the traditional products, I can see why this stigma has held; most of the BI products out there force a whole new interaction, or experience on the user. With the price of many of these BI products, traditionally companies have limited who uses these products to a select circle; further impressing upon the average person that BI is in some "other realm", away from the day to day tasks of the primary workforce. Some of them will claim integration points, such as with SharePoint, however, it is still loosely coupled. The failure of many BI projects to come to fruition also does not help the perception that business intelligence is, and should be, for almost anyone in a company.

It made me wonder also if some of the boundaries around what business intelligence is should change; In our conversations with the Microsoft Performance Point sales team, they had a great quote for what the new product is about: "Monetizing your data assets" (actually, they have quite a few points, but this is one that stuck with me and sticks with customers). The other big focus, which I applaud them on, is architecting the business intelligence suite to be available to all people at all points in the organization. Performance Point has been developed as something to consume, rather than a product with its own UI, its own experience, etc.

While the notion of "monetizing your data assets" works in a great many respects, for me this does not get directly to the point – while important, I feel like an action, or description of the benefit of BI is not being fully encompassed. Mostly this description does not fit for me as it seems to push the notion that everyone involved in using a BI tool or process is to be concerned with the financials of the organization they are with, but also it seems to underline that the data must have a for profit purpose, directly. Quite simply, where do clubs or non-profits, not all about monetizing their data assets. Perhaps we could broaden the definition to: "enable the access to your information assets in order to make more informed decisions" — but here we also have to be careful of scope, because any decision? We’ll be on the hook for everything at this point!

So back to how this relates to a user interface and the discussion I was having with my colleague. Custom applications are inherently designed to meet a business process need. As the organization runs through the process, there are checks and balances, phases and/or sequential steps when starting the process all through the lifecycle till an end point. One thing he and I both saw, infrequently unfortunately, is information in these applications that provided feedback on the process. How quickly did I resolve x? How many of x did I work through in a day? All of this seems to be after thought when management later decides to gather information on employee productivity or linking performance to customer feedback. Why do most developers , and shockingly, business analysts who gather the requirements, miss this as part of an application design? It’s like building a version of Quicken or Microsoft Money and not having any place in the app that shows your statement balances. While this is a strategic piece of business intelligence, we all move through a process with a purpose, and if we can get better at that process (or have data to question why we have this process), then examination becomes a little easier – just a little argument for forethought into custom application development and minding what you will want to measure out of the application and the users who consume it.