When someone first came up with the idea of making a computer chess program to challenge humans, it took approximately 40 years for technology and coding to accomplish the task. 40 years–regardless of the fact that chess is a game with a history that dates back over 1,400 years, with a known set of rules and game space. Similarly, in the business arena, there is a recent push for increased technology to solve and manage business intelligence (BI). Yet the world of business is even less straightforward than a game of chess. It is more difficult to quantify, and presents many unknowns and variables.
While businesses have been around for much longer than chess, the term “business intelligence” was first coined by Hans Peter Luhn of IBM in 1958. The whole idea of taking multiple unstructured data and fact sets, identifying relationships, and presenting this information in a way that would help with making decisions was very ambitious. It was not until 1989 that Howard Dresner proposed “business intelligence” as an umbrella term to describe “concepts and methods to improve business decision making by using fact-based support systems.” These days, market pressures are causing organizations to focus on services and systems for this fact-based support, rather than developing the human resources behind these utilities. Keeping step, various “wonder” vendors have predictably cropped up in the BI arena asserting their software can replace human specialists, deliver every report, and perform every analysis required by senior executives–seemingly by clairvoyance.
I once had an experience on a driving range where someone in the stall next to me was demoing a new driver. He hit two golf balls: one a perfect slice and one that was flat. The man then proclaimed it was the best driver he had ever tried. Although his statement might have been true, based on the two shots I observed, I felt this new technology could only get the man so far, and what he really needed was a golf pro and lessons. For anyone looking to improve their company’s BI position, the human element of talent is often a missing ingredient.
Business analysts often create an overwhelming amount of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and reports in an effort to provide management with actionable information. However, I have seen these efforts repeatedly fall flat – not because the company’s analytical systems and technologies weren’t up to the task, but because their users lacked the specialized training and experience to use them.
The “tech will solve it” trend is not going away, but attracting and keeping Business Intelligence talent is still the most effective way of using and improving your BI. Often the question businesses need to ask, but don’t, is, “How can we find talent that may not know our system, but can be trained to use it?” Most reputable BI vendors will have a formal training curriculum for new users that can be taken on- or offline, while larger vendors often have conferences that analysts can attend, which are a forum for the cross-pollination of ideas. Top talent will include those individuals who can interpret and analyze data to uncover trends, problems, and opportunities that can be used by senior management to remain competitive and relevant. And as the technology improves, these same successful analysts will adapt and use it to increase their ability to manage data in real time.
Business executives would do well to ask themselves following questions, and explore what the answers mean:
- Is your business intelligence purely retrospective, or is it providing knowhow you can use to make decisions for the future?
- Is your BI allowing you to make strategic adjustments in real time?
- Can you identify, hire and train talent, to make sense of reports and data?
 H P Luhn (1958). “A Business Intelligence System”. IBM Journal 2 (4): 314. doi:10.1147/rd.24.0314.
 D. J. Power (10 March 2007). “A Brief History of Decision Support Systems, version 4.0″. DSSResources.COM. Retrieved 10 July 2008.