Business Intelligence & Analytics Articles

What Is Business Intelligence: A Beginner’s Guide

by Matt Mullarkey-Toner
Published on 10 February 2017

Growth based on business intelligence

If you clicked on this article, you're at least interested in business intelligence (BI). Let's take it a step further and say that while you are interested in it, you actually aren't sure what it is. Sure, you've got an idea that it involves some stats, charts, and graphs regarding your business. Most often, all these forms of data are displayed in a business intelligence dashboard.

At higher levels, business intelligence can get tremendously complex. Luckily, a basic understanding of BI is approachable and that's why we have this article and in it you'll get:

  • The definition of business intelligence
  • Some (I) would say a surprisingly interesting history about business intelligence
  • Why it's a good option for small businesses
  • Examples of some popular BI apps
  • Related articles to find out more info

Business intelligence definition

Gartner defines business intelligence as an umbrella term that includes the applications, infrastructure and tools, and best practices that enable access to and analysis of information to improve and optimize decisions and performance.

But it goes back even further than that, so let's take a little history lesson. Or if you can't stand history or trivial information, skip to where it says, 'Is business intelligence just for enterprise or large companies?" and get right to business…intelligence.

Gather round for an early tale of business intelligence…

"Business intelligence" first showed up in 1865 in a book called "Cyclopædia of Commercial and Business Anecdotes" by Richard Millar Devens. In it, he recounts the tale of a banker named Sir Henry Furnese who used an early form of business intelligence. He used early reports from battlefield frontlines to make business decisions and since he was ahead of the game, he was highly successful; he was even awarded a diamond ring by King William.

That's a good starting point for business intelligence: taking data and correctly analyzing to improve your business.

However, with great business intelligence comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, "the temptation to deceive was too great, even for this eminent and honored banker." (P 264). He went on to start fabricating news reports and data, and apparently started ordering his brokers to change their appearance and demeanor based on if he wanted to buy/sell.

Fast forward to 1989, analyst Howard Dresner suggested "business intelligence" as a term to refer to "concepts and methods to improve business decision making by using fact-based support systems." From there, the term took off into a proper field of business.

Is business intelligence just for enterprise or large companies?

No! In the past, BI was something you'd see more commonly in enterprise-sized companies; this kind of technology wasn't as speedy or cheap, especially for a small business. Big companies had the infrastructure (employees, tech, money) to support investing in BI. However, cloud computing and other tech advances has made business intelligence more affordable to small companies.

Why business intelligence is a good option for a small businesses

As your business expands, it's highly likely that you are going to be using a variety of different tools to manage it. Whether it's Excel showing your projected growth or Google Analytics giving you tons of traffic data, you'll not just need an overview of all the bits and pieces, but you'll also need to see how it's all connected.

Not only could having a dashboard that monitors and unifies your data help you earn more money, it can also prevent possible disasters down the road.

Some examples of BI apps

Using GetApp's Category Leader ranking for Business Intelligence as a reference point, here are a few examples of BI apps to give you an idea of their capabilities, as well as user reviews.

Microsoft Power BI

Microsoft Power BI is a great intro to BI because of its intuitive design: it uses a drag-and-drop design system and plenty of ways to share dashboards or other forms of info. Another obvious perk is that it's a part of the Microsoft ecosystem, it also integrates with other business apps such as Salesforce, Google Analytics, Quickbooks, and Zendesk. Power BI also has powerful mobile companion apps available for iOS, Android, and (of course) Windows Phone.

Some features of Microsoft Power BI include:

  • Real-time dashboards and reports
  • Data that can be queried using natural language processing
  • Data-driven mobile insight
  • Data visualization tools
  • Advanced sharing options

Microsoft Power BI

SoftwareAdvice user Juan Navarro writes, "I wasn't expecting to like tool as much as I did, I was able to create really nice visualizations and reporting based on simple spreadsheets and flat files that I have in a simple and fast way […] if you are an Office's user you will love this tool, clean interface with the look and feel of other Microsoft products that allow you to create dashboards from scratch easily.

Tableau Software

Coming from a Stanford University research project, Tableau is well-known for its data visualizations. CNBC, Global News Toronto and other news organizations around the world have been using Tableau's visualizations, but that data crunching can be used to help you make informed business decisions. Tableau is based around the idea that you shouldn't need to code to make sense of your data. Ideally, you should just be able to ask for your data and have it presented visually. As a heads up: At a minimum, Tableau is aimed at medium-sized businesses, so it's likely to be too pricy for a small business.

Some features of Tableau include:

  • Interactive dashboards
  • List of native data connectors
  • Dashboard commenting
  • Metadata management
  • Security permissions at all levels
  • Data import of all sizes and ranges
  • Server REST API

Tableau Screenshot

GetApp user Allan Delmare has pretty fair summuary of Tableau and writes, "This software is by far the easiest BI software I've used (tried Zoho, Excel Pivot tables, Microsoft BI, and many others). It's a slam dunk for drag-and-drop analysis of lots of things. But if you want to do more complicated analysis of what you're looking at beyond face-value graphs of plotting X and Y axis, you're going to need to learn how to perform some custom coding.

Fortunately, there are LOTS of free guides available through community forums and online blogs. But it takes time to read those, and unless you're trying to do exactly what the examples show, it takes quite a bit more time to adapt said examples to whatever is specific about your scenario. The price isn't cheap at something like $1000/yr, so it's no small investment. But from every other software I've seen, I'd buy this over the others."


Klipfolio has been designed with small businesses in mind. It's not meant to be complicated (e.g. data sets can be customized using Excel-like functions and basic math) and, perhaps most importantly, it's cheap; Klipfolio starts at $24 a month. But aside from the competitive pricing, Klipfolio also integrates with web apps like Twitter, Moz, and Google Analytics. Its data mashups, which combine data from multiple sources into a single visualization, are easy to create. Another bonus to BI newbies: there are hundreds of pre-built visualizations to help you get started with the dashboard creation.

Some features of Klipfolio include:

  • Branding options (e.g. logo replacement)
  • Excel, CSV, JSON, XML file formats are supported
  • Integration of multiple data sources into one report
  • White-label options for agencies/partners
  • Simplified dashboards
  • Variety of built-in report styles

Klipfolio Screenshot

Getapp User Martin Matuska writes, "Klipfolio is dynamic and you can start building your visualization in almost no-time. I was looking for a solution for our business overview dashboards, which is affordable and give us a possibility to start building our dashboards as soon as possible. We needed cloud/online solution without installation, which has Postgre database integration - that we have got with Klipfolio. One more feature to mention - it's pretty good, that you have plenty of pre-built visualization and dashboards (you would appreciate that, especially if you are online marketing agency, or building dashboards for your online business using Google Analytics, Facebook, Facebook Ads or other data sources)"

Further reading

Although that's quite a bit of info to digest (memba' Sir Henry?), you should have a good idea about business intelligence. But that's just the beginning! I've pulled together a few more articles about BI below and make sure to check out our Category Leader ranking for BI. And if you have any comments or questions, let us know in the comments below!


Apps mentioned in this article