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The Evolving Scope of Business Intelligence

BI is no longer just a set of standard, SQL-based reports provided by IT. We examine four changes that have pushed BI into a self-service, visual, interactive world that even includes some advanced analytics.

By Bill Franks, Chief Analytics Officer, Teradata

The term "business intelligence" (BI) has been around for quite some time. A few years ago I think that most people would have agreed fairly well on the scope of BI and what it was. For better or worse, people largely viewed business intelligence as equivalent to an environment built upon the standard reporting software packages offered by the market leaders in the space.

In recent years, the boundaries of business intelligence have blurred. I think that's good and I'll take the modern, blurred definition of business intelligence over the traditional, clean definition any day. Although blurred lines can lead to some issues within an organization, the benefits from the increased level of flexibility, discovery, and insight more than make up for it. Instead of fighting the blurring of the lines, embrace the progress that it can enable. Let's look at some of the changes that BI has gone through, why they are important, and why you need to make sure that your organization's thinking about your BI efforts is different from several years ago.

Let's start a few years back. Whether your organization used MicroStrategy, Business Objects, Hyperion, Cognos, or another vendor, it almost certainly had a large implementation of such software that was used to deliver a wide range of standard reports. These BI environments share several characteristics among almost every organization:

  • The software was configured, maintained, and administered by IT

  • Few users had broad flexibility to customize or create their own reports (as opposed to using pre-defined reports and prompts)

  • The vast majority of the reports generated contained some combination of grid-style data points and basic visuals such as line graphs, bar charts, and pie charts

  • The logic behind the reports was limited to what could be generated through standard SQL constructs

There wasn't anything wrong with the systems used. In large part, the standards of the day were driven by the technology that was available and the practical realities of how organizations were able to make data available. As time has passed, the scope of what is included within the umbrella of BI has expanded, and it is now possible to greatly upgrade BI environments from these historical states. How has each of these four characteristics changed in recent years?

Today, BI is often no longer solely owned and managed by IT. This is a positive change because it lets the business-user community have an active role in BI processes and practices. With the advent of powerful desktop BI tools such as Tableau, Tibco Spotfire, and SAS Visual Analytics, it is now possible for users to have on their desktops capabilities that used to be reserved for enterprise-level toolsets. These tools don't usually replace enterprise BI tools. Rather, they allow users more flexibility to explore and discover what new reports should be created and deployed at the enterprise level.

New, powerful BI tools destroy the paradigm of restricting users to the reports they have been given. In many corporations, users now freely explore data and create whatever reports they desire. Of course, there are still limits on how many system resources a user can consume and security settings still ensure users can only access data for which they have permission. However, in terms of being able to experiment with new metrics and new views of data, users are no longer constrained as they once were. This enables users to more freely experiment and innovate with data.

The explosion of advanced visualizations and dashboards has also altered the landscape. The range of visuals available has gone well beyond the classic tables as well as pie and bar charts. In addition, where graphics used to be mostly static or drill-down enabled, today's graphics can be linked together so that users can interact with the data in real time. For example, clicking on one country in a map might automatically filter the data on all other components of a report to reflect just that country. This flexibility enables faster insights.

BI tools are no longer constrained to just standard SQL logic. Many BI tools include more advanced analytics such as predictive modeling algorithms. In addition, the increasing use of non-SQL processes via platforms such as Hadoop and Teradata Aster has changed the landscape. Such platforms have expanded the types of processing that can be applied to data before being passed to users via a BI tool. Complex, iterative programming constructs can now be included within a BI process. Enabling a wider and deeper range of analytic processing obviously increases the avenues that can be explored.

Combining all these changes together paints a picture of the modern business intelligence environment not looking much like it used to at all. BI is no longer just standard, SQL-based reports provided by IT. BI has become a self-service, visual, interactive world that even includes some advanced analytics. As deep analytic tools continue to enhance their reporting capabilities and reporting tools continue to add deeper analytics, the lines of which tools do what are blurring. Also blurring is the line between the roles of IT and business users.

Although this evolution can be disconcerting at first, I believe that organizations that make themselves comfortable with the new world instead of resisting it will find it well worth their while. After all, we often don't realize how impactful new methods of doing things can be until we experience them ourselves. Ten years ago many would have suggested that getting e-mail messages on a phone sounded silly. It doesn't seem so silly today, does it? What path is your organization taking today to maximize the impact of your business intelligence initiatives?

Bill Franks is the chief analytics officer at Teradata. You can contact him at

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