Business Intelligence (BI) Definition, Applications, Specializations & Certifications


Business intelligence (BI) is an umbrella term used to describe the use of data analytics to support businesses making decisions. It covers collecting data, analyzing the information gathered, and transforming it into digestible components for end-users, as well as applying the information gleaned from reports and visualization to optimize performance.

These tools cannot predict what will happen or tell end-users what to do, but rather they give insights into trends allowing users to query, search, and merge data easily to inform next steps. Technology, software, and processes aid these complex and intensive analyses.

The ability to analyze large amounts of data for business decision-making began with the advent of computers in the 1950s. Throughout the 60s and 70s, decision support systems (DSS) were developed as computer-aided models which guided business planning and decisions. Finally, in 1989, Howard Dresner used the term “business intelligence” to describe the use of fact-based support systems to improve business decision-making. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that this practice became more widespread.

Today, BI is used in virtually all departments in businesses, education, nonprofits, government agencies, and law enforcement. Tools have specifically been developed for human resource departments, sales teams, executives, finance offices, supply chain management, manufacturing, and even IT.

The insurance industry leads the way in the adoption of BI tools followed closely by technology and business services. Gartner, a leading BI service provider, estimates worldwide revenue for BI software and products will reach over $22.8 billion by 2020. IQ Blade, another BI service provider, estimates that clients who use their services see a 24 percent increase in sales.

Why is Business Intelligence Important?

Data-driven insights into companies allow executives, managers, and other administrators to visualize what is happening within a company. It tells these decision-makers what is happening right now and what has happened in the past to get them to where they currently are. Being able to make data-driven decisions has many benefits to the entities that utilize these tools.

While increased profitability is often at the top of the benefits list, other advantages include:

  • Ability to make quicker decisions
  • A smoothly running workplace
  • Identifying new revenue streams
  • Determining and capitalizing on new market trends
  • Streamlining internal processes
  • Reducing waste
  • Diagnosing problems within the organization and course-correcting
  • Ability to predict success

All of these benefits allow companies to be more agile, outperform competitors, and adapt to the current economic climate in an active and not reactive way.

Business Intelligence Specializations

Within the field of BI, there are numerous specializations. Specializations are divided into two types: those who synthesize the data for business intelligence and those who use the tools and data.

End-users for business intelligence tools can specialize in:

  • Education and school districts
  • Business and industry
  • Law enforcement

Data needs to be gathered and analyzed in order for end-users to be able to easily access it. Professionals in the field amass massive amounts of complicated data through:

  • Data mining
  • Predictive analytics
  • Text mining
  • Statistical analysis
  • Big data analytics

Once the data has been gathered, other professionals or software programs then assemble and query this data for business intelligence purposes through:

  • Reporting
  • Data visualization
  • Dashboards

Applications of Business Intelligence

As the name implies, BI is used heavily in businesses but is increasingly applied to other industries. The insights that can be drawn from data-gathering and analysis can help decision-makers change the course of any organization.

In higher education, BI tools are used from everything from admissions to optimizing classroom scheduling, to even improving student success. Through analyzing trends uncovered through BI, universities and colleges can implement programs to increase student retention, graduation rates, and career placement. Schools can now even analyze which students are more likely to succeed and target which ones might need more academic support. However, these results are not without bias and institutions have to work carefully to examine why the results are the way they are and factor in underrepresented students into their next steps.

Siren, a BI service provider that uses artificial intelligence to analyze data, has been working with police forces all over the world providing them with data-driven solutions. This software allows stations and departments to easily share digestible data which, in many cases, can speed up the investigation process. Siren can even analyze the correlation between people who get speeding tickets and accidents resulting in serious injuries or fatalities.

Nonprofits also benefit from BI tools, although the lack of qualified staff who can implement and utilize the tools often hold these organizations back. Makeover Monday, a platform to help people learn data visualization, is helping nonprofits by collaborating with them to get their data into digestible formats. Nonprofits can submit their data and each week one project is chosen for participants to work on. Since 2017, they have completed hundreds of outstanding projects such as increasing awareness about child refugees for the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Academic Programs in Business Intelligence

Earning a degree in BI prepares students to collect data and turn it into useful information to drive decision making. Numerous programs are offered at both undergraduate and graduate courses at institutions across the country.

St. Mary’s University of Minnesota offers a bachelor’s degree in business intelligence and analytics, as well as an MBA. Undergraduate students are required to complete general business, math, and economics courses in addition to specific courses in data gathering, business analytics, and database design. In order to graduate, students are also required to complete an intensive capstone project. Graduates of BI programs are prepared for careers in finance, management, or market research analysis.

Master’s degree programs in BI are typically concentrations in MBA programs or a master’s in information science (MIS) with a concentration in business or management. The Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University has the number one master’s in information science management program ranked by US News & World Report (2019). Students in this program learn how to use technology to impact business in new ways such as using machine learning to predict consumer behavior, analyzing how box office hits are impacted by social media, or helping diabetics manage their home care through voice recognition.

Certifications in Business Intelligence

There are numerous certifications for BI professionals and while certifications are not required to work in BI, they can help applicants stand out. Some of the top certifications are:

  • Certified Business Intelligence Professional (CBIP) – Issued from Transforming Data with Intelligence (TDWI), this certification requires passing three tests that measure one’s ability to gather, measure, and display data according to the current best practices and BI trends. Professionals will also need to provide proof of two or more years of work experience in the BI field.
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate: BI Reporting – This certification is the first step of many that Microsoft offers for BI. Professionals who earn this certification have demonstrated their ability to analyze, visualize, and model data using Power BI and Excel.
  • IBM Certified Designer: IBM Cognos Analytics Author V11 – With this certification, professionals can prove they have the ability to build advanced reports using relational data or uploaded files. They also have demonstrated the ability to write complex reports and a working knowledge of SQL and JavaScript. Certification is achieved by passing one exam.
  • Oracle Business Intelligence Foundation Suite 11g Certified Implementation Specialist – Professionals skilled at implementing the Oracle Business Intelligence Suite can earn this certification by passing an exam with measures proficiency in building dashboards, designing new queries, managing files, and setting security parameters.
Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy is a freelance writer with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and has traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.

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