The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Business Intelligence

Big Data tools, streaming data, and machine learning are becoming a focus for many teams.  Data science is such a focus for many teams. You may wonder what role Business Intelligence (BI) plays in the data world. This guide explores what BI is, how this function delivers work and what roles are part of a BI team.

Isn’t that a Data Science thing?

The BI team is responsible for reporting, forecasting and presenting insights.  This is based on what has happened in the past and what is happening right now. The biggest difference is that the BI team are concerned with what ‘has happened’. The Data Science teams are concerned with ‘what will happen next’.

The BI team produces metrics, like ROI and profit margins, and benchmarks the business against the industry, previous years and forecasts future numbers.

I’m not always a fan of visualisations that looks like Venn diagrams but feel like this illustrates the point nicely.

what is bi

So, what does BI do?

what is bi

Data Warehousing / Data Platform

The BI team takes data from all over the business and relevant external data sources and stores it in a Data Warehouse.  This could be a platform like AWS Redshift or Microsoft SQL Server.

This data could be from:

Internal databases

CRM database

Marketing Automation database

Google Analytics / Big Query

External industry data

Forecasts from sales management

Exchange rates

While the catch-all role of BI Consultant might have this function as part of their role, it’s more likely that a specialist will perform this function.  There may be a team of Data Platform Specialists, DBAs, Data Engineers and Infrastructure experts that maintain the data platform.

Data Models

Data Scientists often like the ‘noise’ and quirks of the source data left in to train their models. The BI team cleanse the data and produce models. This single source of truth is used across the business with agreed business metrics, for confidence that everyone is on the same page.

Data models are built by a BI Consultant or Developer who uses tools like WherescapeRed to model the data, and schedules that work for the business user.

Data Analysis and Visualisation

To enable business users to get value from the data models and reports, the team produces Operational Reports and Ad hoc reports on a secure Visualisation platform like Microstrategy, Tableau or Power BI.

Operational Reports – updated regularly for everyday reporting designed to meet the needs of specific users

Ad-hoc Reports – one-off reports for a specific purpose with a project, or deep dive in mind

This function is performed by the BI Consultant, Data Analyst or Visualisation expert.  They interpret the story behind the numbers and make it as easy as possible to understand.

How is work delivered?

It all starts and ends with the stakeholder and group of end users. There is constant contact from requirements gathering, to developing the MVP,  Production rollout and ongoing support.


Like Software Developers, BI teams projects are often delivered in sprints. They use the same tools like Jira, Confluence for documentation and text editors with work being tested along the way.

Teams work with stakeholders to deliver work in phases and provide insight as models and dashboards are created.

How does BI and Data Science differ in your workplace? Are things changing as the data world does?

Photo by Black ice from Pexels