Introduction to Business Intelligence

Key Points

  • The business process owner’s direct involvement in the BI project is essential to achieving the most effective result
  • A solution designed with close cooperation between the BI specialist and business process owner will look very different to one where the requirements pass through various intermediaries and cycles of formal documentation
  • Time to market is crucial in the delivery because it maintains stakeholder engagement.
  • BI technology enables a solution to be realised at a non-prohibitive cost and in a short timeframe

The business intelligence cocktail is the recipe for successful BI projects. It has a number of essential ingredients. With them in place, a little mixing is all it takes to provide a result that will really impress. But be warned! This recipe does not respond well to improvisation

About CMBI

What is business intelligence?

Business Intelligence is the use of specialist technology for decision support and business process improvement. Without the technology, there is no business intelligence. The technology does provide the potential to realise huge efficiencies in short timeframes. 
That is the short story, and the one that places the technology front and centre. We want to believe it because we know that business processes could be more efficient, and decision making more effective. A technology solution seems both appealing and intuitive. Like any headline, it pays to read the whole story before jumping to conclusions. That story is the focus of this article and by the end, you should have a clearer picture of BI and how it works in practice.

Business intelligence cocktail

The business intelligence cocktail has a number of essential ingredients. With them in place, a little mixing is all it takes to provide a result that will really impress.
But be warned! This recipe does not respond well to improvisation. Miss an ingredient and risk a bitter after-taste that could bring the BI party to a halt before it has really begun. To avoid a BI embarrassment we start by looking at each ingredient in turn, ensuring that there can be no mistakes when we bring them together for our first BI project.

Business goal/process

The most important ingredient is the business goal. We achieve a business goal via a process and it is the decision points within that process that we wish to support. An old cliché is that BI improves the business process by providing the right information at the right time to the right person. We also need to deliver the information in the right format via the right channel.
Whether it is a sales representative negotiating with a customer; a team leader completing an employee performance review; or a shop manager ordering stock; there is potential to improve the decision process by presenting existing data in a new way.
BI helps us make a more informed decision. The decision is valuable if it furthers some goal or process that is valuable to the business. Identifying candidate goals/processes is the subject of the article Process improvement strategy.

Business subject matter expert

The second ingredient is the subject matter expert. They understand the business process, are responsible for the outcome, and can articulate the high-level goals. Ownership of the process is the strongest motivator for innovation and improvement. The process owner’s direct involvement in the BI project is essential to achieving the most effective result.


Business Intelligence Cocktail
The business intelligence cocktail

Available data

BI turns data into information to improve the decision making process. The data must be readily available for the BI project to use. Data availability encapsulates more than just the ability to lay your hands on it. The data must be integral, well understood, and in a retrievable format. We address data availability in the articles on Data strategy.

Business intelligence technology

BI technology enables a solution to be realised at a non-prohibitive cost and in a short timeframe. Using specialist software in the right way is what makes successful BI projects so productive. Technology strategy, articles provide practical advice on obtaining the right mix of tools to support BI projects.

Business intelligence specialist

The BI specialist is the fifth and final essential ingredient for the cocktail. They play the role of cocktail waiter, tasked with blending the other ingredients together to create the solution. The BI specialist can be a power user sitting within a business function, a technology professional specialising in analytics, or a BI consultant. Crucially, they must have a deep understanding of the specialist technology, design patterns, and best practices to combine the ingredients successfully.
It is the responsibility of the BI specialist to elicit requirements in terms of business goals rather than report or data specifications. The BI specialist should have an empathy and keen interest in the business problem at hand.
I strongly recommend that the BI specialist communicate directly with the subject matter experts and end users to negotiate solutions that play to the strengths of the technology, available data, and requirements of the business. A solution designed with close cooperation between the BI specialist and business process owner will look very different to one where the requirements pass through various intermediaries and cycles of formal documentation. The great potential of BI tools and practices is their ability to solve common business problems in novel ways. It is therefore inappropriate to presuppose a solution design – even at the conceptual level – without reference to the capabilities of the technology. For this reason, the BI specialist should be involved in the requirements elicitation from the initiation of the project. 

Mixing it up

The right ingredients are the first essential step. Nevertheless, you would still be disappointed if your cocktail took all night to prepare. The cocktail waiter needs to mix it up at lightning speed. The BI specialist is familiar with the ingredients, can mix without spillage, and has a few nice presentation tricks that will make the cocktail even more appealing to consume. Time to market is crucial in the delivery because it maintains stakeholder engagement. The 80/20 rule is relevant to decision support because improving a decision process is a relative not absolute measure. For a given decision support scenario, some inputs will be straightforward to source and some will be more difficult. Knowing where to draw the boundaries between the solution and the user input is the key to delivering at an acceptable cost.

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