BI versus BA? Here we go again

I received an email today from my friend and colleague Claudia Imhoff. She included a link to an article that appeared in the February 27, 2006 edition of CIO magazine, entitled “BI Versus BA: What’s the Difference?” This article opens with the following warning: “Don’t be fooled into thinking business intelligence necessarily includes analytics. Requirements and benefits for each are not the same.”

This statement is diametrically opposed to the message that I’ve worked long and hard to communicate. As I was reading the article, I was already composing a scathing response in my head, but was suddenly knocked off my high horse when I reached the end of the article and discovered that its author, Rock Gnatovich, is the president of Spotfire. Although I’ve never met Rock, Spotfire is a software company that I admire; I correspond from time to time with Rock’s boss, the man who founded the company, Christopher Ahlberg. Perhaps Rock, Christopher, and I should have a little chat.

I’ve worked in the business intelligence industry for many years; in fact, long before the term business intelligence was coined by Gartner in the mid-1990s. Before the term business intelligence, we called this industry data warehousing, which remains a prominent term, but these days refers primarily to the back-end aspects of the industry, such as the databases and the data models. Before the term data warehousing came into vogue in the 1980s, this work was often called decision support. Despite the merry-go-round of terms, the work that they describe remains the same. It’s all about collecting, storing, accessing, analyzing, and reporting business information in an attempt to make sense out of it and communicate its meaning to support informed business decisions. Despite the fact that the terminology has changed about once every 10 years, I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by idly while an entirely new wave of confusion is introduced to sidetrack the good folks who work hard to make sense out of business data.

What’s really interesting is that I just wrote a white paper and did a webcast for Spotfire entitled “Visual and Interactive Analytics: Fulfilling the Promise of Business Intelligence.” In it I made the argument that the type of visual analysis software that Spotfire and a few other innovative companies have introduced in recent years is not only part of BI, it addresses the very heart of BI. Here’s an excerpt from the white paper, which can be downloaded from Spotfire’s web site:

It is BI’s mission to help businesses harness the power of information to work smarter. Intelligence—“the faculty of understanding” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary)—is the solid ground on which businesses must build to succeed. Information is the stuff with which intelligence works to produce the understanding needed to effect change, but more data delivered faster can actually lead to less understanding and even bad decisions if we lack the skills and tools needed to tame and make sense of it. The BI industry has helped us build huge warehouses of data that we can now access at lightening speeds, but most of us look on with mouths agape, feeling more overwhelmed than enlightened. The Gartner Group coined the term business intelligence in the mid-1990s and defined it as follows:

“An interactive process for exploring and analyzing structured and domain-specific information to discern trends or patterns, thereby deriving insights and drawing conclusions. The business intelligence process includes communicating findings and effecting change.”

(Source: A glossary on the web site

The BI industry often loses sight of this clear vision. In many ways, BI is still a fledgling industry, awkwardly struggling with good intentions to mature beyond adolescence, past the flexing and preening of raging hormones, to the responsible solution provider that it has always strived to become. The time is right for BI’s rite of passage into adulthood. Some software companies, like Spotfire, are showing the way. Some companies (I’ll resist the temptation to name names) are still trying to get by on their good looks, flirting with the sad possibility of never growing up.

The “I” of BI—intelligence—can only be achieved by fully engaging the half of human-computer interaction that possesses intelligence: the human half. BI is only as effective as its ability to support human intelligence. This requires software that seamlessly interacts with our brains to support and extend our cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, BI software too often gets in the way, interrupting and undermining the thinking process rather than complementing and extending it. When BI software does its job, however, you find yourself submerged in thoughts about the data, not about the software and the hoops you must jump through to reach insight…

Information visualization—technologies that support the analysis and communication of data using visual media and techniques—should not be seen as separate from BI. As the Gartner Group’s definition of BI made clear, when data visualizations are used to support an “interactive process for exploring and analyzing structured and domain-specific information to discern trends or patterns”, they are doing precisely what BI is meant to do. When used effectively, visualization software extends the reach of traditional BI to new realms of understanding—not as one means among many, but often as the only effective means available. Information visualization will enable the next leap in BI’s evolution.

In his CIO magazine article, Rock asserts that “BI reporting ends with the dashboard, which is sufficient only for some business planning, and BA picks up the rest.” I don’t agree. BI doesn’t end there. By its very definition it doesn’t end there.

May God save us from the confusion of yet one more addition to the alphabet soup that plagues the software industry and incites CIOs to demand that their business intelligence teams spend time researching what they assume is yet one more new industry that they can’t live without, when in fact it is just part and parcel of what they’ve been doing all along. To the extent that most BI vendors have failed to provide powerful tools for analysis, they deserve to be criticized, shamed, and called to task, but let’s not make the users suffer by claiming that business analysis (BA) is something new and different. It is not only a part of BI, it resides at the very center of BI.

Have mercy on the poor folks who spend their days struggling to make sense out of business data. Don’t distract them with a whole new set of terms. Instead, let’s work together to help BI live up to its promise of true business intelligence.


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