A review of “The History of Business Intelligence” by Nic Smith


I had been aware of a short film about the history of Business Intelligence flitting its way around the Twitterverse, but had not made the time to take a look myself. That changed when the author, Nic Smith from Microsoft BI Solutions Marketing, contacted me asking my opinion about it.

Back in the day I was a regular Internet Movie Database reviewer, coming out of “retirement” recently to post some thoughts about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (see also A more appropriate metaphor for business intelligence projects). More recently, I have reviewed rock climbing DVDs, filmed rock-climbing shorts with my partner and have even written a piece aiming to apply Hollywood techniques to Marketing Change. Given this background, I thought that I would treat Nic’s work as art and review it accordingly. This article is the result.
The review

Nic’s film is epic in scope, his aim is to cover the entire sweep of not just business intelligence, but data and business systems as well. It is amazing that he manages to fit this War and Peace-like task into only 10 minutes 36 seconds. However lest the reader expects Bergman-esque earnestness, it is worth pointing out that the mood is enlivened by the type of pop-culture references that are likely to appeal to a 40-something geek like your reviewer.

I’ll try to avoid giving too much of the plot away, however Nic’s initial aim is to answer the following four questions about BI:

  1. Where have we been?
  2. Where are we now?
  3. Where are we going? and
  4. Why should you care?


  It is recommended that anyone wishing to avoid spoilers clicks here now!  

Having failed to get a satisfactory definition of BI from Wikipedia (I trod the same path looking for a definition of IT-Business Alignment in the presentation appearing here), the director embarks on a personal quest to find the answer himself. Along the way, he comes to the realisation that BI is about decisions and that people take these decisions. In trying to explore this area further, Nic takes a journey from the advent of databases in the late 1960s; through the creation of the business systems to populate them, and the silo-based reports they generated, in the 1970s; to the arrival of the data warehouse in the 1980s – a stage he tags BI 1.0.

As the profile and importance of BI increased during the 1990s and the amount of data, both structured and unstructured, increased exponentially – notably with the growth of the web – the number and type of BI tools also proliferated. Because of the variety of tools, their complexity and cost, the market then consolidated, with many of the BI tools finding new homes in the same organisations that had previously brought you business systems. The resulting menu of broad-based and functional BI platforms is Nic’s definition of BI 2.0.

Nevertheless, the director felt that there was still something not quite right in the world of BI; namely the single version of the truth was about as likely to be pinned down as a Snark. The problem in his mind was that people were still left out of the equation (Nic likes equations and includes lots of them in his film). This realisation in turn leads to the denouement in which Nic brings together all of the threads of his previous detective work to state that “BI is about providing the right data at the right time to the right people so that they can take the right decisions” (a definition I wholeheartedly endorse).

The film ends with a cliffhanger, presaging a new approach to BI that will enable collaboration and drive innovation. I suspect the resolution to this punctuated narrative will soon be playing at all good Microsoft multiplexes along with the other summer blockbusters.

Nic Smith joined the Microsoft team in December of 2006, bringing a deep knowledge base of the Business Intelligence space. Prior to joining Microsoft, Nic spent time with Business Objects, a pure play BI company, where he was responsible for the vision of BI and performance management. Nic also spent time with former BI company Crystal Decisions, where he helped bring an enterprise reporting BI platform to market. Nic brings a unique blend of market knowledge, brand development and a solution orientated focus as an evangelist for BI. In addition to his business initiatives, Nic is involved in elite athletic development for youth. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Marketing and Communications from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

10 thoughts on “A review of “The History of Business Intelligence” by Nic Smith

  1. What’s old is new again, when I started in BI in 1999, the slogan at MicroStrategy was “the right information to the right person at the right time”. 10 years later I see that this relatinoship has been “rediscovered” by Nic Smith and Microsoft.

    While I loved Nic’s movie for its cleverness, entertainment value and factual content, I strongly disagree with the notion that BI has only recently figured out the three “rights” and that by extension that BI has only recently figured out that it’s core value proposition is to enable new, or to justify existing, business actions. Either MicroStrategy was way out ahead of the curve on this, or it has been at the heart of the definition of BI for a long time.

    I do agree that there are huge, largely unexplored greenfields in the intersection of BI with unstructured data, social networking, collaboration, SOA and real-time/operation data warehousing. I will be very interested to see what Microsoft is developing in these areas.

  2. Marc,

    I too discovered the “secret” of BI independent of Nic’s video – I do however think that it has some merits. Yes many companies managed to run BI implementations that there was little wrong with quite some time ago, but equally many got it very wrong. At the very least it is amusing.


  3. amusing? yes
    accurate? not so much
    Some of the things Nic is positioning in the past are actually happening right now (consolidation, true platforms)
    As Marc stated, some of the things he puts in the future have been around for quite some time (unstructured data: SAS text mining in actual products dates back several years, most vendors lightly-integrated unstructured docs what… a decade ago?)
    Anyway, being in sales/mktg myself I liked the style (in fact is very similar to what I use with big audiences, it works)

  4. Luigi,

    It was the style that appealed to me – anyone can do accurate content right? It might not make me go out and buy MS BI products, but it does make me think of the BI side of their organisation more fondly.


  5. Peter,

    “anyone can do accurate content right?”
    yes, and have the audience fall asleep (or maybe worse, leave). I think I see your point.

    Let me try and be positive: what can I deduce from the film (content)?
    Maybe that MS is primarily targeting an unseasoned BI audience. Maybe that’s where Nic wants to start building.

    We’ll see. I certainly keep them on the radar, like all the IT pros should. And BTW I should have thanked you for pointing to the video.

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