Written by Marion Williams, Systems Engineer

Since the dawn of the Information Age, organizations in both the Public and Private Sectors have been deluged with data. Traditional forms of data collection techniques and methodologies have been augmented with a wide array of new technologies. These technologies have created enormous opportunities in industries such as Healthcare, Defense, Telecommunications, and others. Advances in and decreases in costs of technology have made the large scale collection, analysis and storage affordable for organizations of all sizes.

In the 21st century, the organizations that survive and even thrive, will be those that leverage traditional and new data sources to Inform decisions on strategy, business processes, and operations. These tools and processes used to leverage them are collectively known as Business Intelligence (BI).

Business intelligence, also known as simply BI, is the combination of ways that a business will use to make their business decisions.  Business intelligence is a broad term because it covers a wide range of applications, technologies, practices, processes and competencies that are used that help a company make informed decisions.  Business intelligence technology, practices and applications are designed to gather and store information, analyze the data and then organize and compile the data into a usable way so that business decisions can be made based upon the facts and evidence that has been found.

Business intelligence includes data mining, processing the raw data, querying the data and then the ability to produce reports based on the data.  You do not have to be a big corporation to use business intelligence, any company can benefit by using business intelligence tools.  However, the reports are only as good as the data that they are based on, so if record keeping is sloppy or virtually non-existence, the reports generated may not be viable.  Part of effective business intelligence is ensuring that the data is good, usable data that is viable and trustworthy.

BI embraces a number of approaches, tools, technologies and processes for turning large scale data into insights that can drive decision making. Under the current technological paradigm, where numerous technologies and tools proliferate, numerous applications and system provide the basis upon which today’s decisions are made. The problem with this approach is that if the data underlying business decisions is faulty, then the decision arising from that data will be faulty as well.

What is Business Intelligence used for?

There is no single element that business intelligence is used for so there is no single answer to that question.  Business intelligence is not a single thing, it is a collective name given to a large number of applications and processes that fall under the umbrella term of business intelligence and depending on what methods you are using, and it can be used for different things.

Business intelligence can be used to anything that related to the performance of a business.  If it is something that is data-driven and quantifiable, then business intelligence can be used to gather, store, and analyze the data for it.  It is most common for business intelligence to be used to help keep operating costs down, improve performance and even help to identify where new business opportunities might lie that can be profitable for the company.

When companies need to make better decisions, they turn to business intelligence.  It is far more than just a system of tools that generates reports, it is highly reliable data gathering and analyzing methods that can help a company see where they need to improve.  Any company that desires to run efficiently should use business intelligence.


Here are examples of what business intelligence can be used for:

  • Risk Analysis
  • Track and analyze sales trends and patterns, buying patterns and customer behavior trends
  • Customer relationships and satisfaction
  • Track and predict financial performance and/or sales information
  • E-commerce analytics
  • Effectiveness of the supply chain including delivery
  • Analyze how well implemented business processes are working; help discover how to optimize how the business operates
  • Budgeting
  • Marketing campaign effectiveness and performance
  • Financial planning or financial forecasting
  • Asses employee performance and staffing needs
  • Asses vendor performance
  • Predict market demand

Best Practices for Business Intelligence

One of the biggest mistakes that a company can make in regards to business intelligence is attempting to purchase or use business intelligence applications without having any true direction for them.  What is it that you need to look at?  If you need to focus on your company’s finances, then business intelligence software designed for marketing will do you no good.

You need to know exactly what your business needs are before you make any decisions about how you will go about gathering and analyzing the data.  What are you objectives?  When you know what your information needs are, you can make a better selection about what business intelligence tool you need to use.

When selecting your business intelligence tools, it has to be user friendly.  Although the software for business intelligence is often complicated, possibly even being built custom for your company, the end user is very likely not an IT person.  Always ensure that the tools are easy to use because otherwise you are not going to be able to utilize them fully.

When you only use a fraction of your business intelligence tool’s capabilities, it is the same as leaving money on the table, which is never a smart business move.  Test any tool or application prior to using it.  Look for an application that easily integrates with your existing desktop applications to give the user flexibility such as the ability to e-mail, share and store or save in a variety of formats.

When looking at business intelligence tools, the person who will be using the application should be part of the selection process because their input is highly valuable.  Trying to select software for something that you yourself will not be using can be tricky, you may be able to try it out but you will not know if it just what your company needs.  Your business analysts who will be using the program can easily tell you what the usability factor of the application is and whether or not it will do what they need it to do.  If you do not involve the actual application users in the selection process, you are making a mistake.

Your data needs to be accurate.  Your company should have clearly established data gathering standards because if the data is bad, your reports are bad.  The surest way for a business to fail is to make business choices based on bad data.  Invest in high quality hardware and software that makes data gathering easy and ensures that the data is clean and usable.

Make sure that users of various levels can access the business intelligence platform.  You should have trained power users from all of the departments involved in the platform.  This ensures that somebody with relevant knowledge from each department can access the platform and offer suggestions.  If you have users who may not need to access the entire platform, such as executives who only need to see the reports, it is suggested that you give them access through a portal so that it is simple and easy for them to get their reports.

Given the increasing levels of uncertainty that confront organizations, it is essential to remember that Business Intelligence is a set of tools, utilizing an infrastructure and powered by the people who use the insights to drive their decisions. It is not solely an IT project, although some tools there is a risk that individuals from the IT organization can skew the direction of the project. To avoid some of the issues and concerns that plague BI implementations, organizations can follow several best practices, which if followed, will mitigate the risk of the project not attaining its objectives. These best practices include:

  • Lack of an executive sponsorship/commitment

It is vital that executives know and understand the business and what types of information are needed to drive the decision-making.

  • Establish an appropriate governance structure for both data and the BI initiative

Having the right governance structure facilitates an understanding of what data exists and how it is used. Further, this value can assist executives to ask the kinds of questions that will enhance the competitive position of the business.

  • Establishing an agile approach to approaching  BI projects

Agile, in this sense, means embracing an iterative approach. This approach enables value to be delivered incrementally, while providing executives with “quick wins”, which can enhance their commitment to see the project to its completion.

Final Thoughts

Business intelligence can be what turns a company around to make it profitable.  It can help companies better streamline their processes and business practices, see where sales and marketing support is needed and help ensure that a business stays profitable.  If you have not implemented any business intelligence tools yet, you should consider it.  Business Intelligence (BI) provide a number tools, approaches and processes for harnessing the enormous flood of information that is readily available. In many instances, the required infrastructure is already in place. Taking advantage of this information requires that individuals leverage the specific areas where BI can be most useful. This includes: Measurement; Analytics; Reporting; Collaboration; and Knowledge Management. Further exploitation of the tools, processes, and approaches of BI require leveraging best practices which will enable the full benefit of BI to be realized.