Business Intelligence Industry – Get to Know Your Real Customers

The BI industry has always failed to understand and support its real customers. With few exceptions, BI product vendors and consultancies continue to be acquainted primarily with IT. This is a comfortable, compatible relationship, for BI and IT both tend to see the world from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric perspective. But the BI industry’s real customers are the folks who actually use BI tools to transform data into the meaningful information they need to make better decisions. Although some of these folks work in IT, most do not. Most are not software engineers. Most are not technologists. Most are people who have a job to do that requires an awareness of what’s going on and how they might influence it, which is primarily gleaned from data. To do this, they need tools that enlighten.

In the past, when the BI industry focused exclusively on building an infrastructure for decision support by developing technologies that acquire, improve, store, and dispense massive amounts of data at high speeds, it was perhaps legitimate to engage primarily with IT. Today, however, the BI industry can no longer sit comfortably in locked rooms filled with servers, discussing bits and bytes with their IT comrades. Most organizations that have purchased BI solutions now know that they need more than BI infrastructure—they need to make sense of all that data they’re collecting, most of which today serves as a massive paper weight. Unfortunately, the BI vendors that helped build the infrastructure can’t use the same perspective, knowledge, and skills that made them successful in the past to produce data sensemaking (analytics) and communication tools. They must now shift from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric mindset to one that is design-oriented and human-centric. They must venture into unfamiliar territory. If they don’t, they’ll be left behind. Unfortunately, most of the major BI players haven’t realized this yet. Before they can begin to make the shift, they must first wake up.

I was prompted to write these words when I read a recent blog post by Boris Evelson of Forrester Research entitled “BI vs. Analytics.” Despite my impassioned disagreement with Evelson several months ago when he attempted to list the features of “advanced data visualization solutions” without first developing an understanding of data visualization, I found myself shouting “Amen” when I read the first two sentences of his recent blog entry:

In my definition—and believe it, I am fighting and defending it every day—analytics has always been, and will always be part of BI.

Indeed it has, at least by definition. Unfortunately, only in recent years have a few vendors managed to make analytics a part of BI in terms of actual analytical functionality. As I continued to read Evelson’s blog, however, I soon stumbled over the following statement: “Today most of the top BI vendors do have…advanced analytics…functionality, so it’s really a commodity now.” Apparently Evelson and I still see things quite differently. Analytics are now being claimed but not actually supported by most BI vendors. What most of them call analytics is so far from actual data sensemaking, it would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic. Analytics is not and never will be a commodity (that is, a good “which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market,” according to Wikipedia).

Evelson is not unique as a BI industry thought leader who fails to understand analytics. Few BI industry analysts and thought leaders have ever actually done the work of a data analyst. They’ve written ETL code, they’ve planned and managed BI implementations, they’ve developed reports, they’ve developed BI methodologies and strategies, and they’ve learned the intricacies of BI technologies, but they’ve never actually dipped below the surface of data sensemaking. What I’m saying is that most of BI’s prominent voices have at best a vague understanding of analytics, so they’re not the people you ought to be listening to for insight and advice in this particular realm. Only a few new experts with actual experience in analytics have raised their voices within BI circles in recent years—people like Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris, the authors of Competing on Analytics and Analytics at Work. Their efforts are complementing statisticians and information visualization experts to raise the banner of BI’s ultimate purpose: data sensemaking. These are the voices that must be raised to a higher volume than those of the past if BI hopes to fulfill its original promise and ultimate goal—helping organizations function more intelligently by basing their decisions on evidence contained in data. The opportunity is now; the door is open. Not everyone in the BI industry, however, will walk through it.

Take care,

8 Comments on “Business Intelligence Industry – Get to Know Your Real Customers”

By Jim Lewis. June 17th, 2010 at 5:52 pm

I generally agree with everything here. However, I’m not sure I agree with the discounting of the IT staff. The main issue is not that IT sees the world from “an engineering-oriented, techno-centric perspective” but that most companies want their IT to see the world that way. The best companies make IT an integral part of their strategic initiatives and hire the people that have the insight to manage the IT infrastructure with that in mind.

Unfortunately, these are in the minority. Most companies see IT as a sunk cost with little or no real strategic value. That’s why most BI initiatives (as well as ERP, etc) fail. Either the IT staff ,with no real vision, is sold the project by the product vendor and strategic management and analytics aren’t involved (leading to failure), or management is sold the product and tries to implement it without an adequate IT staff (again, without analytics) and again, leading to failure.

Every successful major technology implementation I’ve seen (of which BI is one because without the IT component, it would be nearly impossible to properly implement BI) requires multiple org chart areas. There has to be buy in from strategic management (and IT should be represented there), data collection sources within the company, and whatever entity will be managing the analytics for a successful implementation.

I believe the best implementations have the analytics piece, at least initially, sourced from outside the organization. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to prefer one outcome over another and lead the data in that direction.

By Stephen Few. June 17th, 2010 at 6:21 pm


I agree with everything you’ve written. I don’t discount the value of IT staff. I’ve worked in and at other times provided services for many IT departments over the years. As they’re usually constructed, however, few people in IT understand analytics, despite their talents in other areas. Sadly, this is true not just of IT in general, but most BI departments as well, which should be staffed predominantly with people who are skilled in analytics.

By Larry Keller. June 20th, 2010 at 4:33 pm

IT departments function best when they serve the business community as internal consultants IF they take the time to learn the business and concern themselves with business needs. However, too often I have seen business types demand that need more analyses but fail to communicate those needs in specifics

By Telmo Silva. June 22nd, 2010 at 6:36 pm

What a great topic! Having dedicated a good part of my career at working with both the business and IT in the implementation of performance and planning metrics this is of great interest. Some questions which arise as to why IT always become the owner of BI in a company, responsible for the preparation of reports containing charts and tables for the business to “analyze”?

Software used to build charts too difficult for not technical/database expert users?
Business users not taking ownership of data quality/availability?
Data security concerns, business users limited access to enterprise systems?
IT attempts to reduce touch points/standardize tools/data flows in attempt to reduce costs?

I would not agree with Larry’s comment though. Why would IT need to learn more about what the business needs and wants? If the business user community has a reporting need they should direct that need to the business analyst (also a member of the business user community). Unless the analyst has infrastructure issues he or she would not need IT for any specific needs.

IT over the last years as felt threatened and as such is trying to reinvent itself into an internal service organization trying to become part of the business by providing data analysis services among other activities such as project management, process optimization and best practices, etc.

The problem is that this should be the core functions of business users, product managers, analysts, marketing support, etc. Instead of the technical folks stuck and many times blamed for the lack of data, quality, and metrics being used in an organization.

By Lee Feinberg. June 29th, 2010 at 12:39 pm

“They must now shift from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric mindset to one that is design-oriented and human-centric.”

This is the gap that must be filled by IT and “business types” (I am one) working together. BI systems are often built in a more static fashion to either report or answer questions, which change by the time the BI layer is built. In addition to data sensemaking, companies have emerging needs such as emancipating data for broader use and immediately having the right data at their fingertips to make decisions. A company needs IT to drive the technology that enables becoming information-driven.

By Cathy. July 15th, 2010 at 11:41 am

Good points, all. I’m inclined to think that a big piece of the issue is that BI vendors sell their suite of tools as a kind of plug and play Magic Pill – just install the tools (and as an IT person, I know the installation invariably is more complicated than the vendor’s slick sales speech would indicate) and poof, your data is automatically analyzed for you, and the answers to all your analytical business questions are at your fingertips. Management gets sold on that expectation, it turns out not to be true of course, and the result is, predictably, failure.

Analyzing is a mental process that requires time and reflection. And in our “get it done yesterday” culture, it’s easy to see why the Magic Pill approach holds such sway.

By Jacqui Taylor. July 27th, 2010 at 9:57 am

Great blog post!

I work in the Cloud Computing arena and this also requires the paradigm shift thinking you have described here. We have recently added Tableau Software to our offering as we have found that the early adopters of collaborative cloud apps embrace the analytics thinking that you describe in this post.

With each of our cloud implementations we find an evangelist from within the business, we are also learning to look for a data analyst from within the business who embraces the points you make here.

Tableau co-exists with the enterprise BI already in place. We haven’t as yet had any problems with the IT departments using this approach, however that potentially is a matter of time.

By Ladi Omole. August 13th, 2010 at 8:32 am

I think the question is: Where is the intelligence or what is intelligence? Intelligence is a mental activity; it is in people’s head not in a machine. So who has the business intelligence, Business folks, IT or IT folks? Your guess is as good as mine.

I am currently working on a project where the organization chose Cognos as a strategic platform. We have users who had created aesthetic sense making dashboard with Xelsius.

BI under IT is telling the users to get rid of Xcelsius and use Cognos substitute of Go dashboard/Report Studio. I am still hesitant to conclude that IBM Cognos suite does not have a substitute for Xcelsius. The two applications were built with different mindset.

Xcelsius (though not one of Steve’s favorite tool:)) was created as user’s tool with minimal or zero IT involvement, just like Excel. IBM Cognos is 100% IT involvement.

Converting the users is becoming a challenge for BI/IT.

So I totally agree with you… “BI and IT both tend to see the world from an engineering-oriented, techno-centric perspective. But the BI industry’s real customers are the folks who actually use BI tools to transform data into the meaningful information they need to make better decisions”

BI needs a shift