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Business Intelligence

You’ve most likely heard the name – Business intelligence, or BI to its friends. It’s an evocative, if somewhat nonspecific, term. So, what exactly does it mean?

Business intelligence is a broad umbrella term that encapsulates the technologies and strategies used to collect, analyze, integrate and present all forms of business information. Business intelligence systems are designed to transform business data into actionable intelligence, educating an organization about its own operations and allowing it to make better decisions. In this way, BI can be thought of as a decision support system.

BI systems are capable of offering historical, current and predictive views of an organization’s operations, providing this information in the form of graphs, charts, reports, maps and dashboards, making it easily digestible and actionable.

Why is business intelligence important to my business?

Today’s digital world means that all business dealings are recorded in data in some way, shape or form. The resultant ‘big data’ – a totally overwhelming seas of zeroes and ones – is impossible to understand and interpret without the proper tools. BI systems provide those tools. They are capable of either organizing or sifting through the sea of data that modern day businesses generate, and offering up insights that are hidden within.

This enables organizations who utilise business intelligence to do a number of things that other businesses simply cannot, including:

  • Quickly identifying and cultivating new business opportunities
  • Recognizing and improving areas of inefficiency
  • Gathering market and competitor intelligence (known as ‘benchmarking’)
  • Improving the visibility and control of day-to-day business operations
  • Gaining deep insights into customer behavior
why business intelligence
BI in shipping

Let’s use shipping as an example. A company might feel that their delivery process could be fine-tuned. Without a BI system to make sense of the data, it is very hard for a business to identify that there in fact is a problem to solve, let alone what the problem is, how extensive it is, and how it might be solved. With the help of BI, however, the company might see that the delivery of a particular product is regularly delayed (perhaps due to supplier, packaging or business system issues), or that a particular transport company is responsible for the majority of delays.

Business intelligence won’t make the big business decisions for you, but it will give you the information you need to feel far more confident in those decisions. It minimizes an organization’s risk, whether that risk relates to identifying errors in your accounting practices, or exploring a totally foreign and untried market.

How do business intelligence systems work?

Business intelligence systems are usually made up of a range of BI tools – software applications that work together to report, analyze and present the data. These tools must work in concert with a data storage system, which captures and stores the data that the business intelligence system will work with. Data storage systems take one of the following three forms:

  • Data warehouse: A data storage solution which transforms, structures and models all of an organization’s data into easily digestible packages before storing it (a process called ‘schema-on-write’).
  • Data mart: The same concept as a data warehouse, but smaller. Data marts only hold data which pertains to a single specific department within an organization.
  • Data lake: A solution that simply holds all of an organization’s data in its natural, unstructured state. The data is then structured when it is actually used (a process called ‘schema-on-read’).

From these data storage systems, business intelligence tools will extract, analyze and present the data, making it comprehensible. These tools are generally offered as standalone applications, but must be used collectively to create an effective and comprehensive BI solution. BI tools can take many forms, with key application categories including:

  • Data mining
  • Data cleansing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Reporting and querying
  • Operational dashboards
  • Business activity monitoring
  • Online analytical processing
  • Local information systems

There are also a number of ways that a business intelligence system can be deployed. The three most common modes of deployment are:

  • On-premise: BI that is deployed entirely in-house using owned or leased equipment. Data must always be backed up off-site, however.
  • SaaS (Software as a Service): The business intelligence system is hosted by the application service provider.
  • Cloud computing: Data and tools are all hosted in private, hybrid or public cloud infrastructure, and can be accessed by credentialed users from anywhere with an internet connection.

It’s important to note that any business intelligence system will only be as good as the data it uses. Organizations must have strong framework aimed at controlling the quality, the governance and the employment of data. Without this framework, any insights gained through a BI system will be met with skepticism.

Where is business intelligence headed in the future?

Up until recently, business intelligence was left solely to IT professionals. Fulfilling BI’s almost unlimited potential was an overtly technical task, requiring a skillset that lay far beyond the abilities of the standard business user.

More recently, however, BI systems have become far more intuitive and user-friendly. Modern BI solutions now allow any user to analyze data and generate their own insights. By cutting out the IT middleman, modern self-service BI systems are far more efficient than ‘classic’ BI systems. Classic systems still have their place, particularly when the data is highly sensitive (for regulatory or important financial reporting, for example), but when an end user needs to gain insights quickly, as is often the case in departments like marketing, they are willing to forgo 100% accuracy. Self-service BI systems allow a user to be spontaneous, resulting in more creative use of BI.

As self-service BI becomes mainstream, the focus will shift to assisting users with their queries. Machine learning will likely be employed to guide users on useful queries, in order to gain the insights that will be of most value to them.

No matter what the future might hold, the exponential growth of business intelligence indicates that the technology itself will only become more essential to organizations into the future. By capitalizing on business intelligence now, you can ensure that your organization doesn’t fall behind your competitors, and continues to grow, adapt and evolve for years to come.

future of business intelligence

Have questions about BI?

CSG thrives on serving our clients by creating great technology solutions. We are passionate about our craft and believe it’s important to grow as people, consultants, teammates, and engineers. If you have any questions about BI or related technology, please don’t hesitate to ask!