Business intelligence (BI) implementations seem to be the order of the day; BI is becoming so pervasive that there is already talk that it will soon become a commodity and will lose its status as a source of competitive edge, writes Yolanda Smit, BI consulant at Harvey Jones Systems.

Is this in fact the case?
In order to find the answer to this, it will be necessary to ask another question, as a starting point: “What exactly is BI?”
Is BI an attractive weekly, monthly or quarterly report with impressive multi-coloured 3D graphs, indicating that sales have improved from last month? Or is maybe that executive dashboard that only a select few (the big bosses) have access to? You know the one – with the red traffic light (not figuratively speaking) indicating that the manufacturing team has not met its production quota for the last quarter?
If this is the extent of BI, then BI has indeed become a commodity. Which company can survive without the bread and water of daily, up-to-date information to monitor if it’s at least doing the basics right?
Before we jump to this conclusion, however, it’s worth asking another question: “What is ‘Intelligence’?” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, intelligence is “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations”.
In this sense, technology that merely raises awareness of the existence of a “trying situation” is not business intelligence – it’s purely business knowledge and, yes, then it is merely a commodity.
Real business intelligence takes that knowledge a step further – it tries to learn what caused the situation, understands how to rectify and deal with the “trying situation”, through implementing an innovative corrective strategy. Therefore, if a business intelligence solution successfully enables a company to address “trying issues” more effectively and quickly than the competition, surely it’s not a commodity?
Following on from this conclusion then, what can a company do to ensure that its BI solution does not become a mere commodity?
One of the challenges of achieving the above is that BI is a relatively new “science”. Older disciplines such as engineering, mining and beer brewing have developed over centuries and people have perfected the art, in each case, by continually improving on the achievements of the previous generation.
Perhaps, then, with a fairly new discipline it would be best to find an alternate discipline, with similar principles, which can be studied, so as to learn from its failures and successes.
What better discipline to guide the users of BI than military intelligence, a nearly perfected discipline that has been developed over millennia?
Military intelligence is the discipline that focuses on gathering, analysing and distributing information about the enemy (their strengths and weaknesses, their current position, the terrain and anything else) that can assist decision-makers to plan an effective strategy for dealing with the situation at hand.
Maybe this is the first gap in BI. Does management regard BI as the central tool of war? If this core purpose of BI were grasped, much more would be invested to develop effective BI solutions in the areas where they would yield the most strategic value.
BI is not a mere automation of reporting that frees up man hours by eliminating the manual compiling of monthly reports. BI is also not technology that replaces the role of analysts and advisors in a company. BI should be focused on gathering, analysing and delivering information that is relevant to the company’s current environment (internally and externally) to enable business decision-makers to plan effective strategy for dealing with each situation at hand.
These military intelligence processes are conducted both at tactical and strategic levels and are not only confined to times of war. They are rather continuous and, therefore, proactive, preparing to optimise reaction in unforeseen crises.
This thinking leads on to the question on the current debate of “who is the target audience of a BI solution?”. There’s a tug-of-war between “BI only for decision-makers” and “BI for the masses”.
In finding a possible response to this, it is worth considering the following scenario: If a soldier is out in the field as part of a tactical military operation, although his role is only to obey orders, he would probably feel much more comfortable, and even more confident to take risks, if he had some kind of idea of why he were actually on the mission and what’s waiting on the blind side of the next hill. However, he wouldn’t appreciate a written 10-page report at that point in time – a concise radio message with only the relevant information would do just fine.
The next part of this column will investigate each step in the military intelligence process, as well as resource and intelligence corps workforce strategies.
Military intelligence of countries such as the US and UK has managed to ensure a competitive edge over others for a long time. Let’s evaluate their best practice and learn how to implement BI effectively, so as to ensure a competitive edge.