Business Intelligence: It’s about time!

Published in the Times of Malta, 22nd August 2013


BI“History,” according to the English singer-songwriter Sting, “will teach us nothing.” It is not an original judgment but one promoted by the German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who argued that history, as mere collective experience, teaches us nothing unless we analyse the past, observe and question events and be inclined to learn from outcomes.

Early in December 1941, American military intelligence, using then state-of-the-art technology, managed to intercept and decode a set of highly-secret, encrypted radio signals, dispatched from Tokyo. The last of these fourteen communiqués was intercepted on the morning of December 7th, at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST); it instructed the Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu to break off all on-going negotiations with the United States at exactly 1:00 p.m. EST, corresponding to 7.30 a.m. over Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

A sharp naval officer understood the significance of this precise Japanese timing and urgent war warnings were dispatched by the U.S. War Department to all Pacific area commands. Unfortunately Pearl Harbour, in Honolulu, was not in radio contact with the War Department and telephone was considered too high-risk. Consequently the War Department decided to send the urgent dispatch to Pearl harbour through normal commercial channels; using the Western Union Company from Washington to San Francisco and the RCA Corporation from San Francisco to Honolulu in Hawaii.

The RCA Corporation’s office in Honolulu was itself not in contact with Pearl Harbour, and the warning notice had not been assigned any special priority status. As a result, a Japanese-American bicycle messenger, Tadao Fuchikami, was assigned to deliver the warning to General Walter Short, in charge of defending Pearl Harbour, as part of the regular message dispatch-round across Honolulu.

The cyclist was caught in the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour and delivered his message, through falling bombs and bullets, two hours after the start of the attack. By then his dispatch had become a relatively irrelevant historical footnote.

The business world

This lesson from history can be easily juxtaposed onto the contemporary business world; an organisation may have the latest technology, possesses the most relevant and critical of information or knowledge, but unless it can act on it in a timely manner any insight is rendered irrelevant.

Traditionally, business organisations have been encouraged to implement Business Intelligence (BI) technologies in order to be able to process large amounts of raw data and transform it into meaningful and useful information to support established business strategies. The application of BI technology, access to large amounts of corporate data, proficient in-house capability as well as optimised business processes have long been considered important ingredients to garner healthy competitive market advantage.

History does teach; the Pearl Harbour analogy should act as a reminder that there are circumstances when mere possession of the best technology and critical information is far from adequate. In today’s highly-dynamic business environment it is just as critical to concurrently have the capability to deliver this information, in a timely manner, to the people who can best exploit it before it sinks into utter irrelevance and worthlessness.

There are various factors that may hinder the rapid flow of information from source to key stakeholders in the fastest possible manner. All too often corporate data is captured and processed by BI applications within artificial departmental boundaries (‘silos’), across different systems and applications, using an array of operating systems. Although the organisation may utilise best-of-breed finance, sales, marketing and reporting applications, they may still potentially suffer from a general lack of information-sharing across the different departments.

To counter against the so-called ‘silo effect,’ organisations tend to collate key operational data from the different systems using manual ‘data export’ and ‘data import’ routines. Employees spend critical time accessing, reading and manipulating data in order to generate reports that, notwithstanding, provide restricted insight. Such a process wastes valuable resources and requires a relatively prolonged period of time and effort, rendering the delivered reports either out-of-date (historical) or of limited relevance to key decision makers.

Insight through unity

In today’s highly-competitive environment it has become necessary to leverage BI technologies to support a unified and real-time information channel that cuts across departmental boundaries, unites best-of-breed applications and disparate operating systems, in order to provide key operational insight in the fastest possible manner.

For a growing number of organisations the rapid delivery of information has, in fact, become as vital as facilitating and speeding up the process through which this information is interpreted by key stakeholders. The delivery of key insights has been improved by transforming the traditional approach to report generation to one based on dynamic and real-time, infographic, dashboards that present complex information quickly and clearly. Such information-based visual indicators tend to accelerate the decision-making process required to ensure prompt and remedial action in order to mitigate against evolving risk or to enhance any emerging revenue-generation opportunities.


Hindsight, it is said, is analogous to 20/20 vision whilst foresight is to be touched by genius. The American novelist William S. Burroughs is quoted to have said, “The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time … and you cannot see it if you refuse to face the possibility.”

In a way, the presence of a well-implemented BI application serves to guard against the possibility ‘of something bad happening.’ Just prior to the Pearl Harbour attack, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt flatly refused to believe that the Japanese would ever attack America on its own soil. History teaches us how incorrect he really was.

Wish to know the secret of BI? It’s about time.