Business intelligence (BI) is software that ingests business data and presents it in user-friendly views such as reports, dashboards, charts and graphs. BI tools enable business users to access different types of data — historical and current, third-party and in-house, as well as semi-structured data and unstructured data like social media. Users can analyze this information to gain insights into how the business is performing.
According to CIO magazine: “Although business intelligence does not tell business users what to do or what will happen if they take a certain course, neither is BI only about generating reports. Rather, BI offers a way for people to examine data to understand trends and derive insights.”1
Organizations can use the insights gained from business intelligence and data analysis to improve business decisions, identify problems or issues, spot market trends, and find new revenue or business opportunities.
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BI platforms traditionally rely on data warehouses for their baseline information. A data warehouse aggregates data from multiple data sources into one central system to support business analytics and reporting. Business intelligence software queries the warehouse and presents the results to the user in the form of reports, charts and maps.
Data warehouses can include an online analytical processing (OLAP) engine to support multidimensional queries. For example: What are sales for our eastern region versus our western region this year, compared to last year?
“OLAP provides powerful technology for data discovery, facilitating business intelligence, complex analytic calculations and predictive analytics,” says IBM offering manager Doug Dailey in his data warehousing blog. “One of the main benefits of OLAP is the consistency of information and calculations it uses to drive data to improve product quality, customer interactions and process improvements.”
Some newer business intelligence solutions can extract and ingest raw data directly using technology such as Hadoop, but data warehouses are still the data source of choice in many cases.
The term business intelligence was first used in 1865 by author Richard Millar Devens, when he cited a banker who collected intelligence on the market ahead of his competitors. In 1958, an IBM computer scientist named Hans Peter Luhn explored the potential of using technology to gather business intelligence. His research helped establish methods for creating some of IBM’s early analytics platforms.
In the 1960s and 70s, the first data management systems and decision support systems (DSS) were developed to store and organize growing volumes of data.
“Many historians suggest the modern version of business intelligence evolved from the DSS database,” says the IT education site Dataversity. “An assortment of tools was developed during this time, with the goal of accessing and organizing data in simpler ways. OLAP, executive information systems and data warehouses were some of the tools developed to work with DSS. 2
By the 1990s, business intelligence grew increasingly popular, but the technology was still complex. It usually required IT support — which often led to backlogs and delayed reports. Even without IT, business intelligence analysts and users needed extensive training to be able to successfully query and analyze their data. 3
More recent development has focused on self-service BI applications, allowing non-expert users to benefit from their own reporting and analysis. Modern cloud-based platforms have also extended the reach of BI across geographies. Many solutions now handle big data and include real-time processing, enabling decision-making processes based on up-to-date information.
Business intelligence gives organizations the ability to ask questions in plain language and get answers they can understand. Instead of using best guesses, they can base decisions on what their business data is telling them — whether it relates to production, supply chain, customers or market trends.
Why are sales dropping in this region? Where do we have excess inventory? What are customers saying on social media? BI helps answer these critical questions.
“Business intelligence provides past and current insights into the business,” says Maamar Ferkoun in his IBM cloud computing and business intelligence blog. “This is achieved through an array of technologies and practices, from analytics and reporting to data mining and predictive analytics. By providing an accurate picture of the business at a specific point in time, BI provides an organization with the means to design a business strategy based on factual data.”
Business intelligence helps organizations become data-driven enterprises, improve performance and gain competitive advantage. They can:
Retailers, for example, can increase cost savings by comparing performance and benchmarks across stores, channels and regions. And, with visibility into the claims process, insurers can see where they are missing service targets and use that information to improve outcomes.
Organizations benefit when they can fully assess operations and processes, understand their customers, gauge the market, and drive improvement. They need the right tools to aggregate business information from anywhere, analyze it, discover patterns and find solutions.
The best BI software supports this decision-making process by:
Advanced BI and analytics systems may also integrate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to automate and streamline complex tasks. These capabilities further accelerate the ability of enterprises to analyze their data and gain insights at a deep level.
Consider, for example, how IBM Cognos Analytics brings together data analysis and visual tools to support map creation for reports. The system uses AI to automatically identify geographical information. It can then refine visualizations by adding geospatial mapping of the entire globe, an individual neighborhood or anything in between.
According to a report on digital reinvention by the IBM Institute for Business Value: "Looking five years out, 58 percent of 1,100 executives we surveyed in the Digital Reinvention Study expect new technologies to reduce barriers to entry and 69 percent expect more cross-industry competition."
"Advanced analytics enable deeper business intelligence and consumer insight to be drawn from big data, producing information that ranges from descriptive to predictive."
Automate planning, budgeting, forecasting and analysis processes. Go beyond spreadsheets to create efficiency and remove manual steps. "We're delighted with IBM Planning Analytics on Cloud; it’s become the one-stop shop for all of our finance and accounting needs." - Mick Ferguson, Finance Manager, Hunter Industries
Take advantage of this single analytics solution across your entire organization to confidently monitor, explore and share insights from data. "We're much more confident in our metrics — in fact, there’s now an attitude in the business that 'it doesn’t count if it doesn’t come from Cognos'." - Stefanie Nicholson, Head of Operations, Go Health Clubs
Use predictive analytics to help you uncover data patterns, gain accurate insights and improve decision making. "Deep analytics. Just add data." - Mark Lack, Strategy Analytics & Business Intelligence Manager, Mueller, Inc.
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1 According to CIO magazine: “Although business intelligence does not tell business users what to do or what will happen if they take a certain course, neither is BI only about generating reports. Rather, BI offers a way for people to examine data to understand trends and derive insights.” (link resides outside ibm.com) CIO.com
2 “Many historians suggest the modern version of business intelligence evolved from the DSS database,” says the IT education site Dataversity. “An assortment of tools was developed during this time, with the goal of accessing and organizing data in simpler ways. OLAP, executive information systems and data warehouses were some of the tools developed to work with DSS. (link resides outside ibm.com) DATAVERSITY.
3 By the 1990s, business intelligence grew increasingly popular, but the technology was still complex. It usually required IT support — which often led to backlogs and delayed reports. Even without IT, business intelligence analysts and users needed extensive training to be able to successfully query and analyze their data. (link resides outside ibm.com) Better Buys.