If you haven’t already, ask around: Exactly what is “business intelligence”? Some say it’s all about business decision making, and others seem to think it’s all about tools.

We struggle with definitions, but usually not in public. Perhaps that’s why the recent uproar on the weblog of eminent visualization critic Stephen Few felt like a refreshing breeze.

It all began with Few’s damning review of a product whose promoters tripped and gave it the now-sexy “visualization” label. Oops.

Usually, Few’s readers sit back and enjoy the show. He’s one of the few Bi writers with the courage to call out a stinker. But this time, several people sat up in protest. Comments erupted into a weeks-long discussion-turned-scholarly-fistfight over definitions.

After a few swipes at his “mean-spirited” tone—which I don’t see—and other complaints, they found the deeper issue. Colin White, president of BI Research and a keynote speaker at this year’s TDWI World Conference in Las Vegas, arrived late to the discussion but soon led the charge.

One term they fought over was data visualization. To Few, it’s a business function. He wrote that it’s “the use of visual representations to explore, make sense of and communicate data…”

White disagreed. He prefers a more “pragmatic” definition to accommodate the term’s variety of uses. He wrote, “If data or information is presented to a user in a format that aids decision making, then that contitutes data visualization.”

Though White writes that experts must “use clear definitions and terminology,” he wrote in the next sentence, “However, it is important that we accept that other people may have different definitions, and we need to find common ground.” He went on, “We also have to accept that business users may employ technology and use some terms in a completely different way, and it is important to adjust our positions and explanations accordingly.”

Did he mean that terms mean what the person who uses them says they mean? White leaves that and other things unclear in his careful yet still foggy pronouncements. He doesn’t even state his definitions of business intelligence and data warehousing, even when he condascends to Few that his definition is “outmoded.”

Few politely called White’s definition of data visualization “not useful,” and I agree. No term can be useful that has lost its meaning. As Alice said to Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Label inflation makes it tougher to find a toehold in the market, to write about techniques and tools, and even to have a conversation. When marketing collateral shouts “data visualization” to the general BI market, who will look up if it could mean bad Powerpoint slides? It hurts the whole industry if worthy products can’t find words that make would-be buyers listen.

Few’s review of Lyza looks to me like a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps the company should never have entered the visualization arena. Also, according to at least one BI expert I respect, it is actually a valuable tool. A bloody nose for nothing.

To Alice’s question about making words mean many things, Humpty Dumpty replied, “The question is which is master. That’s all.”

If everyone’s a master, we have label chaos. Instead, industry leaders, journalists and smart marketers should use words as they’re most widely understood. As a rule, the master should be business, the data train’s final stop.

Also see sascom editor Alison Bolen’s “What we call what we do: a lesson in evolving industry key words.”