Does BI terminology need a standards organization?

December 19, 2008

Business Intelligence is a term that covers a multitude of sins.  It is also a term which is extremely open to interpretation, depending on your viewpoint, technology mastery, user skillset and information environment.

Creating new terms, especially acronyms is what the technology industry does best, they delight in it, but it does serve some purpose other than the amusement of marketing folks and analysts.

To go back to an old paradigm, creating labels or categories is an essential part of the market.  Not just the BI market, but any village market, or supermarket. 

Categories help consumers navigate quickly to the types of products they are interested in, like finding the right aisle to browse by looking up at the hanging signs in the supermarket, or the area in the village market where the fruit vendors gather.  Labels give more information, such as pricing, size etc and then it is down to the product packaging and the rest of the marketing the consumer has been exposed to in terms of advertising, brand awareness and so on.

Business intelligence is a pretty long aisle.  At one end, the labels are pretty narrow but at the other, very very wide, to accommodate the zeros after the currency symbol and ‘days to implement’ information.

The problem is the the long aisle – vendors need to break that aisle up into manageable (walkable) segments to help the customer navigate quickly to the solution they need.

The other problem is that in this case, the supermarket is not in charge of the category names, not even the vendors or analysts are – it’s a free for all.

This means chaos for the poor consumer, all capering around in the aisle like some kind of Brownian motion.

Thinking about this, after being bombarded with a panoply of BI terms lately, I thought of INCOTERMS, which is a standard set of terms used in international sales contracts.  These terms are strictly defined and published by an independent organization so that both parties in the transaction know exactly where they stand.

According to Boris Everson of Forrester Business Intelligence is “a set of processes and technologies that transform raw, meaningless data into useful and actionable information

Not sure about that one myself – who acquires and stores meaningless information? Other than maybe Twitter.  Other suggestions most welcome.  It might help show the possible technologies Forrester are referring to.

This certainly excludes my product, since we work with data that theoretically, people are probably already making decisions from. They just need to slice and dice it differently.

I can’t complain too much about Forrester though, at least they have Report Mining in their buzzword bonanza (courtesy of Curt Monash), our little niche.

The concept of transforming raw data is easier to work with (in the Forrester BI definition sense anyway) as it could refer to something like a web log, which is pretty difficult to gain any insight from by looking at it in a text editor, unless you have an eidetic memory and the ability to group and summarize the various keys and measures in your head.

Now, as often is the case when you start writing about a topic, the research you do unearths people who have written pretty much the same thing before you.

Going back to definitions, finding Todd Fox’s decent definition of BI – “A generic term to describe leveraging the organizations’ internal and external information assets for making better business decisions.” from a define:Business Intelligence search on Google, leads to Todd’s own attempts from a Data Warehousing perspective, which, in turn was prompted by James Taylor’s post on the confusion around the term analytics (in the context of BI). In addition, even Kimball was involved with his “Slowly Changing Vocabulary” section in one of his books.

This at least tells me I’m on the right track, if not entirely original.

In 1989 Gartner’s Howard Dresner defined BI as “a set of concepts and methods to improve business decision making by using fact-based support systems

More definitions can be found from Larry English and probably ad infinitum, or at the least, ad nauseam.

The depressing thing here is that we have only got as far as the “umbrella term” as BI becoming popularly known.

<Aside> A Dutch student at the University of Amsterdam even wrote a paper titled “Business Intelligence – The Umbrella Term” complete with an umbrella graphic on the cover page.  (It’s a doc file, so I won’t include the link.  Google it if you’re interested)</Aside>

When we start to address even Forrester’s BI buzzword hoard, never mind the others out there, it begins to lead to a total breakdown in the tried and tested categorization mechanism.

To revisit the source of the proliferation, it appears that analysts (likely as a proxy for large vendors) and vendors themselves are the main culprits.  The analysts, by virtue of some level of independence and a cross-vendor view can be seen to be the arbiters of the terms.  The problem here is that the analysts often use slightly different terms or at least different meanings for the same terms.

Naturally, both vendors and analysts want to proliferate and blur terms to aid in differentiation, or to try give the perception of innovation and progress. 

Although this is very seldom the case, as new terms are often just fracturing or rehashing existing categories and terms.

However, in some cases, drilling down into more narrow categories or updating terms due to changes in technologies or approaches is not necessarily a bad thing, if the terms/categories still aid in establishing a contract of understanding between vendor and consumer.

If we want to accommodate this, the ability to establish a common understanding, based on input from across the board – analysts and vendors, would be beneficial to all.  The problem is, you need a real independent organization that can accommodate the horse-trading, as well as maintaining an authoritative definition of terms which is acceptable to all parties.

Some amusing aspects of this I can foresee would be “Active Data Warehouse” – would you have to then create a new term “Passive Data Warehouse” to group the applications that did not fit the criteria of “Active”.  I imagine a semantic arms race that would have to be kept in check – IBMCognoStrategyFire pushes for a “Smart ETL” category, which forces the other ETL vendors into the “Dumb ETL” pigeonhole.  Dealing with this is what standards bodies do.

This is more musing than actually being stupid enough to think this is ever going to happen.  I do have sympathy with the poor customer trying to navigate the shelves of the BI supermarket though.  As someone just trying to keep a lazy eye on the machinations of the industry, it can be overwhelming.

Here’s a short quiz.

What BI term does this refer to?

“centralized repository of information about data such as meaning, relationships to other data, origin, usage, and format.”

Was this your first guess? This?

No.  Much earlier.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Maybe we could just provide a thesaurus, so when someone is puzzling over the latest buzzword, they can look it up and say ahh, I know what that is, we tried to implement something like that back in the early nineties.


UPDATE: Read this excellent article from Colin White – I didn’t see it before I wrote this – I promise!

The catalyst for Colin’s article (Stephen Few) can be found here and follow-up by Ted Cuzillo here.


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