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Business intelligence: New trend, retreaded buzzword, or oxymoron?

You've heard the buzzwords before: Business Intelligence. Data Mining. Decision Support Systems. What does Business Intelligence really mean and are we finally getting near to delivering to business the information it needs to succeed?

You've heard the buzzwords before: Business intelligence. Data mining. Decision support systems. What does business intelligence really mean and are we finally getting near to delivering to business the information it needs to succeed?

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You've heard the buzzwords before: Business intelligence. Data mining. Decision support systems. They all mean the same thing basically — taking the information that an organization creates in the general course of business and using it in such a way to create more business.

Let's go to the video

This ZDNet Whiteboard video features Angela Shen-Hsieh, President and CEO of Visual I/O, and discusses how business intelligence needs to evolve to present that mass of data that resides in an organization's databases in a manner that's easy to understand.

Beyond that, the systems should have a little bit of intelligence to highlight trends and relationships that might not be obvious. They can include e-mail alert features to notify stakeholders of sudden changes. And they should have some type of interactivity to answer questions based on stored data.

Now, obviously her take is a little self-serving because Visual I/O sells just the type of business intelligence software that she's advocating. Even so she has a little bit of a point.

Going beyond the spreadsheet and database

In the video, Ms. Shen-Hseih says that data needs to evolve beyond the simple spreadsheet and database. The data has to go the "last 18 inches" from the screen to the brain.

[Author's note: She must sit closer to her monitor than I do. But I digress...]

Anyone who's been in IT for a while remembers the days when systems did little more than produce stacks of printouts. These forest-killing reports spewed the information out in towers of paper. When I worked at the Police Department, I remember seeing such reports piling up on officers' desks and literally being used as door stops, but little else.

Over time, programs became more sophisticated, and we could generate tables, charts, and graphs that illustrated what the data buried in those reports meant. The problem was the programs weren't very easy to use, which meant that business stakeholders had to make a request to IT to get reports formatted the way they wanted.

This created a problem for several reasons. Sometimes, the stakeholders didn't want to ask for help. Sometimes they didn't know what they wanted and had to keep going back and reexplain their needs. Other times, IT was just too understaffed or unable to produce the reports in the amount of time needed. Therefore, the databases continued to grow, but no one who cared could access the information they needed out of them.

Things are getting better, however, as new tools are emerging that give stakeholders the ability to find their information and have it presented how they want it. You can create dashboards and e-mail alerts that proactively give the needed data. It's not quite there yet, but it's getting closer every day.

BI 1.0 vs. BI 2.0

Echoing the buzzword "Web 2.0" that we relentlessly hear about, you may have heard of the term Business Intelligence 2.0 or BI 2.0. That term reflects a lot of what the video is talking about.

BI 1.0 refers to the "old way" of producing business intelligence. You have a stack of data sitting on a hard drive, and BI 1.0 tells you what's there. You sold 100 widgets to a company in Peoria on Monday and 200 widgets to another company in Kansas City on Tuesday.

BI 1.0 takes events that have happened in the past and allows us to determine what happened and how. It doesn't, however, tell you what's happening right now or what may happen in the future.

BI 2.0 refers to new systems that are being made, which will try to be more predictive. They take past data, and when possible real-time data, and give you information on the fly. In the best-case scenarios, they can tell you what's going on up to the minute and even give you some proactive powers to spot trends and make decisions on things before they happen.

BI 1.0 systems generally relied on rigid database or spreadsheet structures to collect data into discrete predefined fields and from there generate its information. As you can imagine this is very restrictive. BI 2.0 systems are designed to be more open, accepting inputs from multiple different sources.

Much like Web 2.0, which is powered by XML, BI 2.0 has its own method for exchanging data called XBRL. XBRL stands for Extensible Business Reporting Language and does for BI systems the same thing that XML does for Web programs — defines a standard framework for presenting data and then allows a program to just pull the information from that framework.

Business Intelligence resources

There are plenty of resources on TechRepublic and ZDNet that discuss Business Intelligence. Some of the resources we have to explain more about BI 1.0 and BI 2.0 include:

Other sites on the Web that discuss Business Intelligence include:

Finally, don't forget to check out the Business Intelligence resources found on TechRepublic's sister site BNET.

The bottom line for IT leaders

We're all sitting on mountains of data that are growing second by second. Used properly, that data can be a formidable weapon for organizations to use to get a competitive edge. It can also cause endless rabbit holes to chase for organizations that don't know what they're doing.

Call it what you will, business intelligence has been the Holy Grail of IT for decades. We keep getting closer to providing the information that stakeholders need to make good business decisions.

When we're on the side of providing valuable tools to the organization like this, we'll be less likely to find ourselves outsourced.

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