RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Marketing IT In-House: Preserve the Meaning of BI

Preserve the meaning of BI by making every possible technology serve it.

By Max T. Russell

Discussions about new technologies often give the impression that BI is yesteryear's app, as if it's desirable -- or even possible -- to outgrow BI in order to keep up with the changing times. Those discussions can sound as though business intelligence is a passing fad.

In this article I will make a clear distinction between BI as an app and BI as information that will always be important to business-minded people. As always, I write as a user.

Intelligence is the Right Word

Business intelligence is a solid term whose meaning is worth preserving. The two words go together. However, as Michael Cooper told me, "Business intelligence seems like an oxymoron" to users when BI fails. That is, the terms business and intelligence don't fit together when the supporting technology collapses into failure.

Cooper is on the mark. I recently asked an engineer of a leading pharmaceutical company if he knew what business intelligence meant. He suppressed a smile, and asked: "Is that an oxymoron?"

On the other hand, BI makes sense to users who enjoy its benefits and whose IT departments clearly communicate its meaning. Like military intelligence, business intelligence is information collected from as many sources as necessary to allow an enterprise to maneuver strategically in an environment where change, competition, and mystery are always players.

An Army intelligence officer explained his work in Desert Storm to me:

Intelligence was the information we had on the enemy regarding how they typically defended and attacked, what equipment they used, the types of formations they would employ, what the terrain was like in the area where a battle might occur, along with a whole host of other items that could impact the result of a battle. From there we had to plot what we knew were enemy positions, and then predict where the rest of the enemy forces would locate themselves.

If you had been in the 1st Cavalry Division, you would have considered that kind of intelligence worthy of funding and cooperation. Survival and success were at stake.

Does your IT department provide your in-house customers with intelligence that helps them answer such questions as:

  • In what ways might social media be valuable to our company's bottom line, if at all?
  • Which joint ventures might broaden our company's customer base and take fuller advantage of our current data architecture?

Most technologists don't even imagine posing such questions to users. BI experts do. When you do, users will think you're actually a businessperson working in IT, and their interest in helping you gather intelligence for them will grow.

How BI Loses Its Meaning

Even if BI is clearly defined for your users, the term can lose meaning when users don't understand how much patience and cooperation are required to build an effective BI program, and when IT causes confusion by comparing BI to new technologies.

Patience and cooperation. User management's impatience is as much to blame as anything for unfulfilled BI promises. Executives often don't give IT room for correcting failures, a conflict that can be minimized by addressing expectations ahead of time. At the same time, IT often does not provide leadership before things go wrong, or after they do.

For instance, Peter Fishman told me users develop a strongly negative view of BI because 50 percent of the data visualizations IT gives them are useless. Most users will cooperate with technology that is developed with their input and improved with their feedback. Fifty percent would probably be an acceptable starting point; leaving it there is not. Seth Redmore told me users see value in BI when it gives them answers to the questions they originally asked. Yet, as Redmore implied, users must realize from the beginning that mistakes may be the only way to a solution.

Wayne Eckerson, a veteran BI proponent, said, "We certainly have our problems," but he, too, emphasized that solutions come through corrected failure.

A big part of the problem is that the amount of flexibility required on everyone's part is often outweighed by the traditional emphasis on meeting requirements. As Bill Inmon of Forest Rim Technology said, "By the time a BI infrastructure is built, the requirements have changed."

That is not a climate of vision.

In short, business intelligence can only be meaningful to users when it answers the questions they asked, all because they cooperated in the BI effort and endured the inevitable growing pains. Then the terms business and intelligence look good together.

Comparing BI to new technologies. BI can lose meaning for users when they hear it compared to big data, fancy cloud solutions, and other recent technologies.

You cannot expect users to automatically differentiate between BI as intelligence on the business panorama and BI as an app involving a DW, analytics, and visualizations.

Most technologists can easily grasp the concept of BI as an app. BI professionals are distinguished by an understanding of how the app can enhance business. They are constantly aware that BI holds value for users only when it means and delivers actionable business intelligence.

The BI Umbrella

Once you have it in your head that BI is about gathering intel, it's a small step to seeing why business intelligence should bring all relevant technologies under its umbrella to deliver on the promise of BI.

The emphasis -- when talking to users -- should not be on differences between newer BI and traditional BI, or between BI and other technologies. The emphasis should be on the ways new technologies can increase -- not replace -- business intelligence. BI will never fall out of fashion as actionable insight.

Similarly, the military collects a wide variety of data through an expanding number of technologies for the purpose of improving its military intelligence.

My twin and I are marketing a product right now with the help of big data. It might allow us to make better decisions in traditional ways. Some of the companies we rely on are implementing big data and other technologies along with BI. While they work feverishly to bring them together, we think we might be benefitting.

We can run market tests more precisely than ever, based on social media likes, shares, and other behaviors. However, that does not mean we're marketing smarter. We don't know yet. We're running more kinds of tests and making more kinds of decisions, but not necessarily with measurable advantages that would indicate improved intelligence.

We and our vendors are trying to increase actionable insight by all available means. All useful technologies will go under the business intelligence umbrella.

It's Not Information Technology Intelligence

Send clear messages to your in-house customers about the meaning of business intelligence, and don't make them suffer through "techie" conversations about it. My colleague Roger Cogswell says, "It's not called information technology intelligence."

Most users don't ever get a chance to see what BI can look like for their enterprise. For those who do, BI is all about actionable or otherwise valuable intelligence, which will never go out of date, no matter how technology changes.

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions about future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 18 years. You can contact the author at maxt@maxtrussell.com .

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