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Introduction to Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence can be used within all industry types, four employees analysing business data.
Matthew Hayhow

By Matthew Hayhow Web Journalist, Updated 17 May 2017

Anyone working in a modern business setting will increasingly hear about Business Intelligence, which is also shortened to BI. But what is it, and what do you need to know as a manager? This introduction to business intelligence will explain what BI is, and its features and benefits.

What Is Business Intelligence Software Exactly?

Business Intelligence software is essentially powerful software that helps businesses to extract intelligence from corporate data reserves in order to support decision making. These systems were first introduced in a basic form in the sixties, and today there are more than 100 specialist software firms that sell their own versions of these tools.

The software helps organisations of all types to organise and rapidly analyse data in a custom fashion in order to make better quality decisions. The data that is analysed could include internal departmental data, plus external data from a variety of sources, often online.

The market is growing rapidly as data itself grows. Most companies are struggling to keep on top of the disparate data sources that they own or can access and have already invested in ERP or CRM systems to help manage it. The growth of data means that demand for user-friendly analytics tools is growing too.

The market for Business Intelligence is therefore being driven from the supply of organisational data and the need to make sense of it.

The market itself is changing, however. A few years ago it was being driven by IT users who wanted to see complex and highly functional tools with advanced integration into existing internal systems and data warehouses. Increasingly however, the customer is now the business user themselves, who wants to be able to run custom reports on department data, such as marketing, retail, sales, procurement and digital channel data.

Features Typically Found In Business Intelligence Software

There are generally three categories of Business Intelligence software: tools to manage data; tools to discover it; and tools to report against data. These include visualisation and dashboard software for intuitive, real time reporting. Scorecards are also increasingly used, all reflecting the changing customer type - from IT specialist to business user.

Individual organisational needs depend on the systems that are already in place for data management. For example, firms further along their data journey may have a range of inter-connected data warehouses, linked with ERP and CRM systems. Those with some way to go may still have their data sets scattered across a range of traditional databases which don't yet connect with each other. Data planning specialists and software vendors can assess existing capabilities and advise as to best fit solutions for organisational needs.

Once data is organised into a common format and structure, the organisation can implement discovery software based upon a variety of programs, which will include numerical and text mining features. These allow ad-hoc reports to be pulled off in real time, without affecting the systems that gather the underlying data.

Organisations may also buy in supporting services such as data quality management, to ensure that the data being captured is clean, error free and standardised, the latter point being vital for an effective BI system.

Evaluating Buyer Type

Before a customer contacts a software provider, they should know whether they are approaching the BI question as an IT expert or a business user, and pick potential solution providers accordingly.

IT specialists will generally want complex, functionality-driven and highly integrated systems that can be merged into the existing data infrastructure. Business buyers may also contact software providers directly, and will prioritise user friendly, mobile and real time reporting applications. These are often delivered very effectively by smaller providers with a strong understanding of what managers really need.

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