Back to the Future of Business Intelligence

August 27, 2012

When was the term “business intelligence” first coined? You might assume it was first conceived in the late 1980’s; coinciding with the initial emergence of companies offering visual analytic software.

When was the term “business intelligence” first coined? You might assume it was first conceived in the late 1980’s; coinciding with the initial emergence of companies offering visual analytic software. While it’s true that IT analyst and author Howard Dresner discussed “business intelligence” in 1989, closely matching today’s common description, the term was actually first used decades earlier by visionary IBM technology scientist Hans-Peter Luhn in his groundbreaking 1958 research paper, A Business Intelligence System.

Hans-Peter LuhnHans-Peter Luhn’s life work at IBM did not include quantifiable (structured) data. That realm of BI would be rooted in early work by such visionaries as Scott Morton on decision support systems, which became practical and cost effective with the mainframe systems of the mid 1960’s. Rather, H.P. Luhn’s prolific career at IBM focused on documents — letters, research reports, books — the unstructured content of his day.

So too, the business intelligence system Luhn envisioned focused on computer-automated document processing: auto-abstraction, auto-indexing, selective dissemination of information, and information retrieval. Luhn would later make much of his system a reality, most notably developing KWIC (Key Word in Context), an automated document indexing and abstraction system.

It’s plain to see that Luhn was well ahead of his time, envisioning critical technology components that set the stage for knowledge management and enterprise search today. And now, Luhn’s insights are more relevant to today’s business intelligence than ever before.

Luhn defined intelligence as “the ability to apprehend the interrelationships of presented facts in such a way as to guide action towards a desired goal,” and said his business intelligence system “is to supply suitable information to support specific activities carried out by individuals, groups, departments, divisions, or even larger units,” and enable “discovering information which has a bearing on a given situation.”

Luhn also demonstrated a keen awareness of the roles communication and collaboration play in the effective use of business information. The system would “channel a given item of information to those who need to know it” and find co-workers “whose interests or activities coincide most closely with a given situation,” using action point profiles of each person’s interests and activities. Luhn’s BI system would therefore quickly answer three vital overarching questions: what is known, who needs to know, and who knows what.

Three key overarching BI questions

Over 54 years later, it is remarkable how well Luhn’s definitions and insights remain a very solid, results-oriented description of BI. What is also striking to me is how early the silos separating unstructured content and structured data emerged. Business analytics analyst and consultant Seth Grimes, who has written and presented on Luhn’s contribution to BI, sums up this issue of structured and unstructured silos well:

[For decades,] business intelligence detoured around the estimated 80 percent of enterprise information locked inaccessibly in textual form … So BI thrived crunching [easily mined and analyzed] numerical, RDBMS-managed data… (and) delivered findings via tables, charts and dashboards that focus more on numbers than on knowledge.  – Seth Grimes, BI at 50 Turns Back to the Future, Information Week (2008)

In recent years, the BI community has increasingly recognized that BI based on structured data alone is not enough. To achieve a complete BI picture of the business and achieve new breakthrough insights, BI drawn from structured data and unstructured content is a must. As a result, the work of H.P. Luhn continues to be rediscovered. Again quoting Grimes, “in the last few years, BI has headed back to the future foreseen by Luhn in 1958.”

We at Attivio strongly agree, and believe the most compelling evidence that Luhn’s vision for BI is alive and well is the advent of unified information access (UIA) technology, exemplified in the Active Intelligence Engine, Attivio’s UIA platform.

Attivio has eliminated the longstanding silos separating structured data and unstructured content. Our Active Intelligence Engine integrates and correlates all structured and unstructured information together without data modeling, providing end users with a wide variety of access options, including analyzing unified information using popular BI tools – replacing BI using just structured data with BI using the entire spectrum of enterprise information, structured and unstructured.

What is known? Who needs to know? Who knows what? These three timeless, mission-critical questions Hans-Peter Luhn asked in 1958 require unified information — data and content — to fully answer. And these key questions have become easier than ever to effectively answer and act upon with the power of Attivio’s unified information access. Back to the future, indeed!