Business Intelligence: The road is paved with data, data, data


If you’ve been in business for a cycle or two, you’ve already learned one crucial lesson: Studies and reports are where good ideas go to die.

It’s not that research isn’t important. It’s that the end result of the research can’t be … well, you know … the research.

A new survey of 400 “business intelligence” analysts (, commissioned by Narrative Science, one of the top two players in natural language generation (NLG), sought to identify the barriers to deeper, more solutions-oriented information.

Here’s what it found:

  • The majority of analysts’ time is spent gathering information with little time left for analyzing its meaning.
  • That leads to a problem: The majority of business executives (64 percent) complain that their reports lack context — focusing on the what and not the why.
  • Visualization hasn’t really hit the C-suite of these businesses yet. Most execs say that the most common analysis they receive comes in a spreadsheet. The other methods? Written in a document, in an email, on a dashboard, or in a presentation. 

Of course, Narrative Science wants readers to hop on the NLG train. And that may not be a bad move. For the uninitiated, NLG is a subset of artificial intelligence ( NLG engines scan data sources, process information, and then — using language processing skills — write stories and reports based on the data using language indistinguishable from a human author. Many of the news stories and sports and financial reports you read every day have been written by NLG/AI ( engines going back nearly a decade.

But I think there are three areas that present barriers or opportunities (depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person) to small and medium-sized businesses that want to capitalize on a technology revolution that seems to favor the handful of very large corporations.

First, what is “business intelligence” anyway? The definition: utilizing technology tools, digital and analog practices, and applications to gather, analyze, and present business information. Its goal is to support better decision making, goal setting, and planning. Whether you know it or not, your company is using business intelligence already. But maybe — as the Narrative Science survey suggests — not as fully as you could be.

Do you have enough data to be useful?

Many small businesses and nonprofits are stuck in an analog world, burdened by legacy processes they just can’t let go of, or — and this seems worse in my view — digital processes that they don’t capitalize on. There are two major reasons you can’t get great business ideas and solutions out of the data you have. One, you don’t have enough of it. There are many places where digital information can be gathered that often go overlooked — presence at events, visits to your website, social media interactions. Even e-newsletter subscriptions can be more useful than just sending out a weekly touch-base/sales email if you maximize the information a subscriber might give you. Two, you don’t integrate all your data sources to build a complete picture.

Do you report or analyze?

This gets to the heart of the survey we started with. It’s important to know how many people went to your website, responded to a Facebook ad, came into the store because of a sales email, or signed up for your newsletter. And it’s critical to know what products or services sell best through which sales channel, which products are most popular among which demographics. But that’s reporting. Analyzing comes from one of two directions: Either the data you are gathering show you a clear path your business can/should take, or you determine in advance what your goal is and amass specific data in that pursuit.

Do you have what you need?

Two things really matter in this space: the data points and the expertise (whether from tech or humans) to interpret them. Small businesses have one big advantage over big ones: They can be nimble. They don’t have a mind-numbing hierarchy to run plans through, and it doesn’t take months to get a decision on a problem you were having months ago.

The first thing a small business with some cash might think of is buying a system or a service, and there are a lot of them. Nearly all of them, however, require significant human interaction in setup and maintenance. You can’t just sit down on day one and pull up your dashboard analytics.

For a small business, a lot can be done with the data you have and a good business analyst who is given the time and objective to analyze, not just report.  

NLG tools like Automated Insights, Arria, and Narrative Science can take over a lot of the basic reporting functions. Arria is more of a developer’s toolkit, which makes it a bit more complex. But if you have a programmer on staff, you can probably develop it into a highly customized AI app. The two others offer a scalable set of solutions for businesses of all sizes and budgets. Don’t assume these tools are out of reach. Consider soft-dollar ROI. Here’s one: Many companies — some I’ve worked for — devote all or a large part of a staffer’s time to the reporting and distribution of sales and commission reports. That involves accessing information from one system, pulling it into another (usually a spreadsheet), running calculations, comparing results, and on and on. NLG can do that in the time it takes to fire up your laptop.

Whatever path you choose to business intelligence has to be paved with data, data, data. Find all those overlooked analog interactions — paper forms, disconnected databases, and unmonitored interactions — and make digital conversion Job No. 1.


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