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Marketing Business Intelligence

Originally published February 16, 2010

Overused words do not work. Instead of relying on words, offer evidence. Offer the compelling stories – the case studies, awards, business growth, achievements – that make those adjectives unnecessary.

Harry Beckwith
Author of Selling the Invisible

We begin another year of promoting and explaining business intelligence. I say this in part out of frustration because, despite many of our best efforts, the term business intelligence still is not well understood by many of our coworkers.

For many of us, this must seem unbelievable. Yet it is true! Just ask a colleague in a department unrelated to your own to define what business intelligence is.

Most of my academic business colleagues have varying opinions about what the term means. For many in information systems, I hear business intelligence (BI) commonly described by words that suggest that it is a synonym for software (e.g., database, data warehouses, data mining, and analytic software). In other business disciplines, many people will suggest that they are familiar the term, but their definition typically is some convoluted combination of the individual terms. That is, many businesspeople describe business intelligence as being about smart business, competitive intelligence or even corporate espionage. The honest ones will say they have no idea what it is. And some skeptics will offer the opinion that business intelligence is an oxymoron.

There are a distinct few out there who see business intelligence as a science. That seems plausible, since the word “science” comes from the Latin "scientia," meaning knowledge.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of science is "knowledge attained through study or practice," or "knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world."

What does that really mean? Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge. In science, this system uses observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge people have gained using that system. Less formally, the word science often describes any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it.

Describing business intelligence as a science is problematic, however, because intelligence is wrought with risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Also, there are no laws, theories, or axioms per se of “business” as compared to those espoused in astronomy, mathematics, or philosophy, for example. It is true that observation, experimentation, and research are all employed in business, but no concrete science of business exists. In fact, the definition of “business” is often ambiguous. The term “business” itself can refer to an enterprise, a volume of transactions, an occupation, or a for-profit or a non-profit entity. Therefore, when we talk about business intelligence, we can’t even be certain how others will interpret our use of the term ”business,” let alone suggest it will be viewed as some kind of scientific endeavor! Besides, no one in business calls business a science.

So what definition of business intelligence is being offered up to the masses? Wikipedia defines business intelligence as follows:

Business intelligence (BI) refers to skills, processes, technologies, applications and practices used to support decision making. BI technologies provide historical, current, and predictive views of business operations. Common functions of business intelligence technologies are reporting, OLAP, analytics, data mining, business performance management, benchmarking, text mining, and predictive analytics. Business intelligence often aims to support better business decision making. Thus a BI system can be called a decision support system (DSS). The term business intelligence is often used as a synonym for competitive intelligence.

I have absolutely nothing against Wikipedia. However, I think this definition illustrates a common problem in explaining what business intelligence is. The Wikipedia definition of business intelligence is like describing soup as follows:

Soup is liquid food especially of meat or fish or vegetable stock that often contains pieces of solid food. The purpose of soup in the meal is twofold; first, to improve digestion and stimulate appetite by introducing at the beginning of the meal a highly flavored liquid food which increases the flow of digestive juices; second, to increase the variety of nutrients in the meal, or even to furnish the main dish of the meal.

Now I don’t know about you, and that may be what soup is and does, but it really does not describe my experience with soup or its impact on me, especially when I’m cold and hungry. The definition understates the value and impact of soup. Soup is something much more than words can describe. That’s because the word “soup” elicits immediate sensory images and responses, most of which are probably positive.

Maybe that is what we need to work on with business intelligence – find a way to describe it so that it yields positive imagery. That is, use words to create an image that elicits a positive impression of business intelligence in others.

Think about accounting, management, marketing, finance, and operations. I’m sure you get visual imagery when you see or hear these terms. Most of us actually decide on our college majors based not on what those working in those fields do, but on our image of what people do. And whether that image is real or imagined, most of us have a positive image of the profession we choose when we choose it.

Now think about business intelligence. What imagery does your mind conjure up? If we base the image on the definitions described above, it’s a blur, because the definitions are too complex and convoluted. So let’s take a step back and try this again.

If you really think about it, business intelligence is all about impact. It’s about enabling effective decision making. Stop!

Now I know what you’re going to say. It’s not that simple. Business intelligence requires good data, analytics, effective networks, sound business processes and management, the right software, yada, yada, yada. Maybe, but that’s not the point.

Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris wrote the book Competing on Analytics that has become the gospel for many of us in the BI field. However, most people forget that there was also a colon in the title followed by the words, “The new science of winning.”

Isn’t that why we all feel so passionate about business intelligence? It’s a difference maker! Sure business intelligence involves tools, methods, procedures, protocols, appropriate analytics, thoughtful, reflective, and critical managerial thinking, and data management. That’s all part of BI work. But what business intelligence is really about is impact, and ideally that impact is all about success – winning, if you will. That’s the real story here.
Now think about that image. You can do it the BI way and have a good shot at success, or you can keep doing that trial-and-error or gut-feel thing in a data intensive world and hope for the best. Business intelligence is about possibilities and opportunities.

As some of my readers may know, I feel that medical field is all about business intelligence. That is, business intelligence is inculcated in the practice of medicine. Their SOAP process (subjective, objective, assessment, plan) is all about evidence-based decision making to improve patient health. My point in relating this to the discussion of business intelligence is that everyone knows what the goal of medicine is ideally about – making people well. That goal and the actions that are undertaken in its pursuit create the understanding of what medicine is and why it is important. The average person doesn’t need or have to understand the tools and methods employed as they are just means to the desired end. What attracts people to medical care and even to the pursuit of a medical career is their desire to be helped or to help others. It’s their mental imagery that matters.

So let’s try describing business intelligence in a new way. Let’s focus on building an activist BI image. What we need are success stories – lots of them. We need to saturate our young people and those in our companies with stories and images about what a difference business intelligence makes. Our immediate goal needs to be to build positive BI imagery. Only when that happens will others want business intelligence to become inculcated into the everyday fabric of business.

  • Richard HerschelRichard Herschel

    Richard is Chair of the Department of Decision & System Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Before becoming an educator, he worked at Maryland National Bank, Schering-Plough Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, and Columbia Pictures as a systems analyst. He received his BA in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, his Master’s in Administrative Sciences from Johns Hopkins, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Management Information Systems. He has earned the Certified Systems Professional designation, and he has written extensively about both knowledge management and business intelligence. Dr. Herschel can be reached at herschel@sju.edu.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Richard Herschel's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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