Business intelligence (BI) may be at the forefront of modern data technology, but it’s not a new discipline. It got its start in the 1950s as “decision support technology,” a fancy way of describing data analysis used specifically for strategic business decisions. It’s still line-of-business analysis at its core, but it’s come a long way since.

New advancements in streaming data, cloud storage and processing, and self-serve analytics tools have transformed BI into a cutting-edge field—one that’s even shaping workplace cultures everywhere from tech startups to healthcare organizations.

Here’s a look at modern business intelligence and what it can do for you.

What is Business Intelligence?

Business intelligence comprises all the means companies have to be more informed, and more strategic. It’s a cross-pollination of data science with deep business analysis, and as a part of a broader analytics strategy, it can help businesses sell better, operate better, invest better, and hire better.

Business intelligence may focus on

  • Process improvement (e.g. Six Sigma)
  • Divergent thinking
  • Strategies to scale
  • Optimizing marketing and sales
  • Identifying inefficiencies and preventing loss
  • Prediction and forecasting
  • Better teamwork

The intelligence part comes from mining and extracting data—internal and external data, structured and unstructured, from the past and the present. For many organizations, merging all of this data is the biggest challenge. A BI analyst can help, corralling data from disparate sources into a master report.

Next, the findings are transformed into insights. This is called data storytelling, with the narrative is tailored to a business’s operations, goals, strategies, and market. These may come in the form of interactive dashboards, visualizations, or in-depth reports created with tools like Tableau and Alteryx.

The stories don’t just support discussions and planning sessions—for BI-minded organizations, they guide them.

It’s not just enterprises—everyone is putting BI to good use

More businesses than ever before are making comprehensive business intelligence part of their strategies. Don’t be surprised to learn that every member of a small, 5-person e-commerce brand can confidently speak to the ROI of retargeting campaigns and statistics about clickthrough rates in their space. Data has become far more colloquial in the digital age.

Put simply: if you’re not leveraging business intelligence to make smarter decisions, you’re in the minority.

For growing businesses in particular, data can have immense value. It can be the difference between investing in a losing effort or bolstering a winning one. It can also give leadership an idea of what’s working and what isn’t, helping teams to scale smart and pinpoint opportunities to go after. Everyone from lean startups to SMBs are adopting a data-first mindset—and the business intelligence pros who can guide them are in high demand.

Integrating business intelligence into every team’s workflow

“More business workers understand how to work with data, while data scientists are becoming more familiar with the inner workings of the business.” – Sonic Prabhudesai, Manager of Statistical Analysis at Charles Schwab via Tableau

Modern BI has taken data out of the analyst silo and moved it into the day-to-day of every department—marketing and sales to IT and operations. It’s leading to better data literacy and a rise in “citizen data scientists.” Automation, API integrations, easy-to-query data, and interactive reporting tools have made BI accessible, and instrumental to how each of us does our work. Some tools can even integrate BI solutions into the tools we already use, such as CRMs and project management tools.

That level of accessibility means BI isn’t just reserved for those big decisions anymore; it’s helping to shape everything from microinteractions to short-term goals. With the amount of data we can harvest from nearly every tool we use, there are insights to inform just about every move we make. Which begs the question: Which data is the right data to go after, and what should you do with it?

Want to implement business intelligence analysis but not sure where to start? A business intelligence consultant can help.

Data can be overwhelming. You likely have it in spades, which can make it hard to know where to start, and what to prioritize. Many organizations are modernizing their data strategies to make this easier by migrating to the cloud. Whether it’s financial data, CRM data, analytics platforms, databases, project management tools, a BI analyst can help capture, organize, and integrate application-specific data to make it more cross-functional.

“Around 70 to 80 percent of corporate business intelligence projects fail. The problem stems from communication between IT and the business, and the failure to ask the right questions or to think about the real needs of the business.” Gartner Analyst Patrick Meehan

This is the value of a BI analyst: They can help you ask the right questions, harness your data, set you up with the self-serve tools you need, and evaluate how effectively you use your insights. Also, BI analysts are also highly goal- and timeline-oriented, which makes BI analysis projects well-suited to freelance talent.