On the limitations of business intelligence systems
One of the main uses of business intelligence (BI) systems is to support decision making in organisations. Indeed, the old term Decision Support Systems is more descriptive of such applications than the term BI systems (although the latter does have more pizzazz). However, as Tim Van Gelder pointed out in an insightful post, most BI tools available in the market do not offer a means to clarify the rationale behind decisions. As he stated, “[what] business intelligence suites (and knowledge management systems) seem to lack is any way to make the thinking behind core decision processes more explicit.”
Van Gelder is absolutely right: BI tools do not support the process of decision-making directly, all they do is present data or information on which a decision can be based. But there is more: BI systems are based on the view that data should be the primary consideration when making decisions. In this post I explore some of the (largely tacit) assumptions that flow from such a data-centric view. My discussion builds on some points made by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in their wonderful book, Understanding Computers and Cognition.
As we will see, the assumptions regarding the centrality of data are questionable, particularly when dealing with complex decisions. Moreover, since these assumptions are implicit in all BI systems, they highlight the limitations of using BI systems for making business decisions.
To keep the discussion grounded, I’ll use a scenario to illustrate how assumptions of data-centrism can sneak into decision making. Consider a sales manager who creates sales action plans for representatives based on reports extracted from his organisation’s BI system. In doing this, he makes a number of tacit assumptions. They are:
- The sales action plans should be based on the data provided by the BI system.
- The data available in the system is relevant to the sales action plan.
- The information provided by the system is objectively correct.
- The side-effects of basing decisions (primarily) on data are negligible.
The assumptions and why they are incorrect
Below I state some of the key assumptions of the data-centric paradigm of BI and discuss their limitations using the example of the previous section.
Decisions should be based on data alone: BI systems promote the view that decisions can be made based on data alone. The danger in such a view is that it overlooks social, emotional, intuitive and qualitative factors that can and should influence decisions. For example, a sales representative may have qualitative information regarding sales prospects that cannot be inferred from the data. Such information should be factored into the sales action plan providing the representative can justify it or is willing to stand by it.
The available data is relevant to the decision being made: Another tacit assumption made by users of BI systems is that the information provided is relevant to the decisions they have to make. However, most BI systems are designed to answer specific, predetermined questions. In general these cannot cover all possible questions that managers may ask in the future.
More important is the fact that the data itself may be based on assumptions that are not known to users. For example, our sales manager may be tempted to incorporate market forecasts simply because they are available in the BI system. However, if he chooses to use the forecasts, he will likely not take the trouble to check the assumptions behind the models that generated the forecasts.
The available data is objectively correct: Users of BI systems tend to look upon them as a source of objective truth. One of the reasons for this is that quantitative data tends to be viewed as being more reliable than qualitative data. However, consider the following:
- In many cases it is impossible to establish the veracity of quantitative data, let alone its accuracy. In extreme cases, data can be deliberately distorted or fabricated (over the last few years there have been some high profile cases of this that need no elaboration…).
- The imposition of arbitrary quantitative scales on qualitative data can lead to meaningless numerical measures. See my post on the limitations of scoring methods in risk analysis for a deeper discussion of this point.
- The information that a BI system holds is based the subjective choices (and biases) of its designers.
In short, the data in a BI system does not represent an objective truth. It is based on subjective choices of users and designers, and thus may not be an accurate reflection of the reality it allegedly represents. (Note added on 16 Feb 2013: See my essay on data, information and truth in organisations for more on this point).
Side-effects of data-based decisions are negligible: When basing decisions on data, side-effects are often ignored. Although this point is closely related to the first one, it is worth making separately. For example, judging a sales representative’s performance on sales figures alone may motivate the representative to push sales at the cost of building sustainable relationships with customers. Another example of such behaviour is observed in call centers where employees are measured by number of calls rather than call quality (which is much harder to measure). The former metric incentivizes employees to complete calls rather than resolve issues that are raised in them. See my post entitled, measuring the unmeasurable, for a more detailed discussion of this point.
Although I have used a scenario to highlight problems of the above assumptions, they are independent of the specifics of any particular decision or system. In short, they are inherent in BI systems that are based on data – which includes most systems in operation.
Programmable and non-programmable decisions
Of course, BI systems are perfectly adequate – even indispensable – for certain situations. Examples of these include, financial reporting (when done right!) and other operational reporting (inventory, logistics etc). These generally tend to be routine situations with clear cut decision criteria and well-defined processes. Simply put, they are the kinds of decisions that can be programmed.
On the other hand, many decisions cannot be programmed: they have to be made based on incomplete and/or ambiguous information that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Examples include issues such as what an organization should do in response to increased competition or formulating a sales action plan in a rapidly changing business environment. These issues are wicked: among other things, there is a diversity of viewpoints on how they should be resolved. A business manager and a sales representative are likely to have different views on how sales action plans should be adjusted in response to a changing business environment. The shortcomings of BI systems become particularly obvious when dealing with such problems.
Some may argue that it is naïve to expect BI systems to be able to handle such problems. I agree entirely. However, it is easy to overlook over the limitations of these systems, particularly when called upon to make snap decisions on complex matters. Moreover, any critical reflection regarding what BI ought to be is drowned in a deluge of vendor propaganda and advertisements masquerading as independent advice in the pages of BI trade journals.
In this article I have argued that BI systems have some inherent limitations as decision support tools because they focus attention on data to the exclusion of other, equally important factors. Although the data-centric paradigm promoted by these systems is adequate for routine matters, it falls short when applied to complex decision problems.