Business Intelligence, a maturing industry?

Good BI is like a fine port - it takes time in the making

I was recently invited by recruitment consultancy La Fosse to chair an roundtable event for fellow Business Intelligence professionals. We held the meeting last Thursday evening in London. There was a good turn out with delegates representing the following industries (number of attendees in brackets):

  • Insurance and affiliated (5, including me)
  • Investment Banking and affiliated (2)
  • Manufacturing (2)
  • Media (2)
  • Aviation (1)
  • Public Sector (1)
  • On-line (1)

As chair there is always the dread of the tumbleweed moment; everyone staring at each other with nothing to say. However, I needn’t have worried as each of the group members had a lot to share based on their extensive and varied experiences in the area. We started at 6pm, rolled through the call for early departures at 7:45pm and dissolved into smaller groups around 8:30pm. As several people said via e-mail the next day, without journeys home to consider, we could have happily kept talking for several more hours.

There were a number of encouraging aspects to the event. First of all, in chatting to various people before we formally kicked off, I found that many (like me) had worked in a number of industries in addition to the one where they were currently employed. There was general agreement with my view that this can often broaden perspectives and that at least several central elements of BI are pretty transportable between different areas of business endeavour. Of course in-depth exposure to one sector is invaluable, but leavening this with a few years in different sorts of organisations can produce a more rounded individual with a wider range of experiences.

The second encouraging aspect was the nature of the conversations. There was little interest in the latest and greatest technological tools (though we did spend a bit of time on the almost mandatory topic of Big Data). Instead virtually everyone wanted to talk about the human aspects of their BI programmes; past and present. Questions included: how to generate enthusiasm; how to reflect business needs when these were often changing in line with rapidly shifting strategic and competitive environments; how to both provide payback and demonstrate that you were doing this; how to become an embedded part of the business, not a technology bystander. People were happy to offer examples of what had worked (and failed to work) for them and to enrich these with interesting anecdotes and pertinent analogies. I suppose if I achieved anything as chairman (and it was a relatively easy group to chair), this was to ensure that everyone had some airtime.

It would be untrue to say that there was unanimity on all points; some things had worked for some people, different ones for others. However it is fair to say that, at least at a conceptual level, there was a degree of commonality of opinion about success factors. More positively (and in line with my now ancient article A bad workman blames his [Business Intelligence] tools), no one felt that the answer to the challenges they faced was the latest dashboard or data visualisation tool. Most people felt that we have had the technological tools and general knowhow to succeed in information-centric programmes for years, if not decades. Reasons for success and failure have always been (and remain) in the rather messier areas of business engagement, sound programme management, strong communications, pragmatism and responsiveness to developing needs.

While the fact that so many BI practitioners shared these (in my opinion) well-informed views is perhaps not great news for the vendors of information platforms and tools, it does suggest that – after a troubled childhood – BI is coming of age. In established and well-understood areas of business what counts is not technology, but how you apply it and align this with what people need. If this approach is becoming mainstream in Business Intelligence, and on the evidence of last week’s meeting is it, then maturity seems to be within reach; truly an encouraging thought.


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