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Intelligence Didn't Mean Intelligence Before PowerPivot

“You keep using that word, ‘Intelligence.’  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

-Average BI Consumer

Wrapping up an old thread

Awhile back, I wrote parts 1 and 2 of “PowerPivot Consulting Observations” (part one here and part two here) in which I hinted at some potentially controversial conclusions…  but then I trailed off into other topics.  I have not forgotten, however, and it’s time to close the loop.  Let’s dig in shall we?

Revoke the License to the Word “Intelligence?”

Basically, my conclusion is this:  whoever coined the term “Business Intelligence” is a genius, because the term sparks the imagination.  It gets people excited about high-tech, hyper-sensitive equipment in the hands of inquisitive, focused, and nimble knowledge workers.

I’ve written about this many times before, of course, but the theme never gets old for me because it seems so absolutely central:  BI, as experienced over the past 10+ years, simply does NOT deliver on that vision.

Here are some adjectives that apply to most folks’ experience with traditional BI:  Slow.  Disciplined.  Iterative.  Consolidated.  Managed.  Controlled.  Foundational.  Structured.

“Intelligent” never makes the list.  Ever. 

And so, traditional BI, I think it is time to stop calling you “Intelligence.”  I’m absolutely serious that “intelligence” is a misleading label, and sets expectations impossibly high relative to what traditional methods and toolsets can deliver.

What SHOULD we call it though?  Data Stewardship?

I don’t really have any hope of changing the industry lingo – Traditional BI will still keep its “I” no matter what a few of us say, but as a thought experiment, I certainly think it is a valid exercise.  Because remember, I DO very much value the work that goes into traditional BI projects.  I just think the word “intelligence” is misplaced, and that completely miscasts PowerPivot, and undersells what it can deliver.

So, as a means of provoking discussion, I’ll throw out “Data Stewardship” as a potential replacement for the term “Traditional BI.”  Or is “Information Discipline” better?  Remember, the goal is not to demean traditional BI, but to distinguish it from the experience of things like PowerPivot (and, I suspect, the experience we will get with BISM in the next release of SQL).

I mean, once you’ve seen PowerPivot do its thing, you realize the two worlds couldn’t be more radically different.  With PowerPivot, business unit workers who normally glaze over at BI sit forward in their chairs.  They are engaged.  They are excited.  They want to dig deeper, they want to LEARN.

And, they want to engage with the folks who manage all of the critical business data.  They want to partner with them.

That is, of course, how it should be.  I just think that the nomenclature we currently use, putting both disciplines under the same umbrella of “BI,” does no one any favors.

Alternate Approach:  Recast PowerPivot as “NOT BI?”

Another idea:  since “BI” has meant information discipline for so long, and is therefore an entrenched term, maybe we should just describe PowerPivot differently?

Officially, Microsoft refers to PowerPivot as “Managed Self-Service BI,” which woefully understates its value.  Taking the adjectives from above, it often comes across as “You mean I can be slow, iterative, and deliver underwhelming business value ALL ON MY OWN?  WAHOO!’”

Back when Ariel Netz was Group Program Manager of the Analysis Services team (the PowerPivot team), he proposed calling PowerPivot “BI 2.0” – I liked that then, and I still like it now.

Any other ideas?  I’m just pretty sure that “Self-Service BI” doesn’t cut it.

Summing Up:  True Discipline vs. True Intelligence

Whatever we ultimately end up calling these two skillsets/investments, I think the core difference comes down to this:

Traditional BI is primarily the art of minimizing mistakes, and eliminating the paralysis that stems from confusion.  Whatever numbers are produced, you can be sure they are “the truth” according to all corporate policies and systems.

PowerPivot BI is the art of developing a much clearer business picture, and in near-real time.  It is the art of generating a much better, more informative truth. 

It isn’t going to deliver as much discipline as traditional BI of course, but still a LOT more than traditional Excel does.  Plus with BISM, PowerPivot models will be directly importable into the “heavy duty” toolset, and can therefore be seamlessly “taken over” and absorbed into the 100% managed, aka traditional, space. 

Perhaps we can think of PowerPivot BI as a “scout” for traditional BI, where scouting is an everyday, constantly evolving exercise, and traditional BI is more of a slow-churning background process that is always digesting the most core and relevant findings from the scouts.

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. Rob,

    “Intelligence” as in “Artificial Intelligence” and “Business Intelligence” is not really what it means in other uses. Someone said before that computers are as intelligent as earth worms – they do not think, and thought leads to intelligence. Therefore, PowerPivot is not an “intelligent” product – just like “Traditional BI”.

    “Decision support systems” is what BI actually is – we really support business, allowing it to have more knowledge about their operations, and to take more informed decisions – which in turn makes them look more intelligent.

    Whether PowerPivot gives more flexibility to users to make better decisions, thus making them look even m ore intelligent is another topic, but to speculate that Traditional BI should be rebranded because of PowerPivot does not sound right.

    Have a look at Wikipedia and BI 2.0. Your “traditional BI” is actually BI 2.0. PowerPivot based tools may or may not reach a status of being BI 3.0 – time will tell…

  2. In Swedish, Business Intelligence is called Beslutsstöd and if you translate that to English you get Decision Support. Luckily not Business Support. Because then you would be a BS Consultant.

  3. I think the term “BI” as used in the industry is highly misleading. Data Warehousing, OLAP cubes (including PowerPivot) & data mining algorithms all are, as already pointed out, “decision support systems.” To gain intelligence, a human must analyze and interpret the data. Unfortunately, as Stephen Few has pointed out many times, tools to allow a human to analyze and interpret the data **in a meaningful way** (i.e. gain real intelligence) are in short supply.

    The component that is missing from **all** of Microsoft’s “BI” offerings (and most other major vendors in this space) is visual analytics – the true “last mile” in the BI chain. Examples of good products in this space are offerings from Tableau, Spotfire & XLCubed.

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