What is Business Intelligence? — A Brief Look at the Definition

My Take on Business Intelligence

This is my view on Business Intelligence:


Business Intelligence (BI) is the work with Information technology (IT) to gather, structure, and present information that will support an organization’s intelligence (OI).


The goal with BI is to provide the right information, in the right format to the right user at the right time. This is to support and ensure valid decision-making. 

What ‘right’ means is however often hard to define and it’s part of the Business Intelligence process to determine it.


Business Intelligence often manifests itself in reports. Such a report can for example be an overview of the company’s most important KPIs. The users of BI reports are often people in managerial roles.


Developing BI solutions, one must understand different data sources and how to extract data from them. Examples of data sources are databases, files, or spreadsheets. To satisfy a reporting need, a BI developer must often combine different sources and transform the data into one common way of querying it. Such a solution of combined data sources is often called a Data Warehouse (DW). The data is later loaded into an area inside the DW where a data visualization tool can pick it up and create the needed report. This pattern of working with BI is so common that it is referred to as the ETL-process (ETL — Extract Transform Load). 

ETL is so common that I even consider ETL to be a part of what Business Intelligence is.

Info. Almost all BI tools or BI Services a structured around an ‘Extraction-phase, Transforming-/Cleaning-phase, and a Load-phase. BI tools and Services and organisations might label ETL differently or put it in a different order, but it is still ETL-pattern. ETL is the main separation of concern (SoC) principle in the BI field.

Other Voices on the Definition of Business Intelligence:


Gartner is a well know and often referenced company in our field, e.g. they deliver benchmarking tests among BI products. On their website, they have a dictionary with several definitions. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a Gartner definition of Business Intelligence. The closest I found was Business Intelligence Services. This is how they define it:

Business intelligence (BI) services are offerings to design, develop and deploy enterprise processes and to integrate, support and manage the related technology applications and platforms. These include business and infrastructure applications for BI platforms, analytics needs and data warehousing infrastructure. Solutions include areas such as corporate performance management (CPM) and analytics, in addition to the traditional BI platform, data warehouse/data infrastructure and data quality areas.

– Gartner


Tableau is a popular choice of data visualization and exploration tool. I like how they define Business Intelligence on their website:

Business intelligence (BI) combines business analytics, data mining, data visualization, data tools and infrastructure, and best practices to help organizations to make more data-driven decisions. In practice, you know you’ve got modern business intelligence when you have a comprehensive view of your organization’s data and use that data to drive change, eliminate inefficiencies, and quickly adapt to market or supply changes.

– Tableau

Random Business Intelligence Book from my Bookshelves

I picked a random book on the subject of Business Intelligence from my book selves.

Here is the take by Cindi Howson author of Successful Business Intelligence.

No matter which terminology you use, keep the ultimate value of business intelligence in mind:
“Business intelligence allows people at all levels of an organization to access, interact with, and analyze data to manage the business, improve performance, discover opportunities, and operate efficiently.”

– C. Howson

History of Business Intelligence – important mentions

This part is an abstract from the English Wikipedia page.

Cyclopædia of Commercial and Business Anecdotes (1865)

The earliest known use of the term business intelligence is in Richard Millar Devens’ Cyclopædia of Commercial and Business Anecdotes (1865). Devens used the term to describe how the banker Sir Henry Furnese gained profit by receiving and acting upon information about his environment, prior to his competitors:

Throughout Holland, Flanders, France, and Germany, he maintained a complete and perfect train of business intelligence. The news of the many battles fought was thus received first by him, and the fall of Namur added to his profits, owing to his early receipt of the news.

– Devens, p.210

IBM Journal of Research and Development (1958)

H.P Luhn used the term Business Intelligence System as early as 1958 in a research paper. Here is the abstract from Luhn’s paper:

An automatic system is being developed to disseminate information to the various sections of any industrial, scientific or government organization. This intelligence system will utilize data-processing machines for auto-abstracting and auto-encoding of documents and for creating interest profiles for each of the “action points” in an organization. Both incoming and internally generated documents are automatically abstracted, characterized by a word pattern, and sent automatically to appropriate action points. This paper shows the flexibility of such a system in identifying known information, in finding who needs to know it and in disseminating it efficiently either in abstract form or as a complete document.

– H.P Luhn

Note that his proposed system is very focused on the term document and not on data.

Howard Dresner of the Gartner Group (1989)

Dresner is credited for the coinage and popularization of the term Business Intelligence.

The term BI is a popularized, umbrella term coined and promoted by Howard Dresner of the Gartner Group in 1989. It describes a set of concepts and methods to improve business decision making by using fact-based support systems. BI is sometimes used interchangeably with briefing books, report and query tools and executive information systems. In general, business intelligence systems are data-driven DSS. (Power, 2007)

Just One More Thing!

If you read the Power reference, you will come across the term Decision Support System (DSS). If you search for DSS vs. BI you’ll get a lot of hits on poorly written articles. 

I would say, nowadays, you rarely come across the term DSS in everyday work. BI is a broader term that has replaced DSS. Maybe in the academic field, it is still important to distinguish the terms.

But what is the difference? I would say that DSS focus on building systems modeled after an expert’s opinion to tell what is ‘a right decision’. On the other hand, BI focuses on data, that the data itself should tell a story on what is ‘right’. I think this is what Power means when he writes: “…business intelligence systems are data-driven DSS.” (Power, 2007).

If you really want to dig into the subject I can recommend the article: Decision support systems: Sifting data for better business decisions (Olavsrud, 2020).


If you‘ve read this far, you now possess a very good understanding of the definition of Business Intelligence and its origin. Well done!

Business Intelligence Spy vs. Spy


Gartner (2022). Gartner Glossary – Business Intelligence Service https://www.gartner.com/en/information-technology/glossary/business-intelligence-bi-services [2022-01-07]

Howson C. (2014). Successful Business Intelligence Second Edition p.2. McGraw Hill Education. 

Luhn H. P. (1958). A Business Intelligence System IBM Journal of Research and Development. 2 (4): 314–319. doi:10.1147/rd.24.0314. https://web.archive.org/web/20080913121526/http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/rd/024/ibmrd0204H.pdf [2022-01-08]

Olavsrud T. (2020). Decision support systems: Sifting data for better business decisions. CIO MAY 29, 2020 3:00 AM PDT https://www.cio.com/article/193521/decision-support-systems-sifting-data-for-better-business-decisions.html [2022-01-08]

Power, D.J. (2007).  A Brief History of Decision Support Systems. DSSResources.COM, World Wide Web, http://DSSResources.COM/history/dsshistory.html , version 4.0, March 10, 2007. [2022-01-08]

Tableau (2022). Business Intelligence: What It Is, How It Works, Its Importance, Examples, & Tools https://www.tableau.com/learn/articles/business-intelligence [2022-01-07]

Wikipedia (2022). Business Intelligence https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_intelligence [2022-01-08]

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