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Business Intelligence

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

There is a lot of confusion around the term "Business Intelligence", most of it generated by the people who sell "Business Intelligence" software. In fact, most Business Intelligence projects fail — that's right — most of them. There are a lot of reasons, and the primary one is unmet expectations. That's a problem I can help you solve. In this section of the InformIT Database Guide, I’ll cover the various technologies, processes and procedures you can use to implement a sound strategy around the implementation of a Business Intelligence project in your company.

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The sections in this Guide are designed to allow quick access to what you need. The tutorials and overviews can be read in just a few minutes, and many contain useful scripts and hands-on guides to examples you can follow.

What is Business Intelligence?

I've put in a few Business Intelligence systems, some small and some large. Along the way I've seen a lot of mistakes, and learned some things the hard way. As I mentioned earlier, many projects fail, and some fail right at the start — when the definitions are made or inferred.

Part of the confusion about Business Intelligence comes from the very definition itself. Merely collecting data about an area in a business isn't enough. Some of the products out there are really doing just that, adding on a report here and there and slapping a "Business Intelligence" sticker on the box. But just as standing in a garage doesn't make you a car, putting that label on a few fancy reports isn't a Business Intelligence system.

What you need is a product that helps you create meaning from data. In fact, I use that as the definition for Business Intelligence. I use the analogy that databases are like banks. If you walk into your bank and ask the right questions, you can find out how much money you have, and how much it would be worth in different currencies that the bank supports. You could find out how many accounts you have. You could have the teller give you some or all of the money, or take some from you. You could move money from one account to another.

This is similar to a database. You can query the database, perform calculations on the data, move data from one database to another, add and even take away data.

But the database has the same restriction a bank does. Try this: go to your bank and ask them how much money you have. When they tell you, ask "Is that good?" You'll get a blank stare and an answer that goes something like this: "I have no idea. What do you mean by 'good? '"

Your data is the same. In its raw form, data doesn't have meaning. That takes a person, a situation, and a brain to figure out. And that's where a true Business Intelligence system steps in — it helps people interpret data into meaning. They look at various displays and combinations of the data, and they can make a decision. Depending on how much "intelligence" has been built into the tools, it can even suggest some meanings or directions on finding that meaning.

How Should You Implement a Business Intelligence System?

The first this you do to implement a Business Intelligence system is: Don't. That's right, when your boss contacts you and asks you to starting looking into a Business Intelligence system, don't do that.

Instead, you need to look at these three things first:

  1. Your data (location, security, retention, etc.)
  2. Your reporting system (location, schedule, security, use, overlap, etc.)
  3. Your users (levels, needs, requirements, etc.)

Then, and only then, should you embark on your quest for a Business Intelligence system. Let me explain my logic here, so that you can tell your boss why you didn't do what you were asked!

If you don't know where the data is generated, how long you keep it, where you keep it, who has access to it and why, you certainly can't build any decision making systems on it. Try it: I have two currency notes in my pocket, along with a credit card. Can we afford to have lunch out today, my treat? Well, doesn't it depend on what the notes are and if the credit card is mine and not overdrawn? Certainly! You simply can't build a strong decision without the right base data, and if you don't know if you can trust your data you can't make the right decision.

As far as the reports go, how do you know that you even need any hard-core analysis work done, such as a Business Intelligence system, if you don't already have the right reports in your current system? Those might be all you need.

For your users, you need to find out which ones need strategic level information, at what granularity, and how often. The worst thing you can do is launch a complicated system with lots of moving parts to a group of users who don't have time to learn it. By the way, this is another classic reason that Business Intelligence systems fail

I've been using the term "Business" throughout this introduction, but in fact the information I’ll explain in this section can be used even if your database implementations are in the scientific, education or not-for-profit organizations. You’ll learn that Business Intelligence is really just using the information stored in your databases to best effect.

InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters

Do you (or your boss) need more proof that you need to do some research before you start? Check out this free chapter to learn more.

Books and eBooks

A great resource on Business Intelligence (hey, it's from IBM!) is right here at the InformIT bookstore. Check it out!

Online Resources

The name says it all — BusinessIntelligence.com!

Click Next to continue reading. Next topic: BI Explained