That’s not BI

A pair of officials in double-breasted suits arrived at a New York school for a meeting with the principal. On their way to his office, a young student excitedly offered to demonstrate his skill at computer programming.

In a story told in 1984 by Nicholas Negroponte, I heard echoes of today’s business intelligence industry.

The boy had taught himself to program. The two visitors watched as he zipped through one thing after another on the computer, explaining everything. At one point, he couldn’t remember how to do something and flipped through a manual. He found the answer, and finished the code.

Upstairs, the visitors told the principal about the fantastic, articulate kid. “But there must be some mistake,” said the principal. “He can’t read!”

They all went downstairs. One of the visitors asked the boy, “Can you read?”

“No,” he said, “I can’t.”

“But you looked up instructions in that manual. How did you do that if you can’t read?”

“Oh, that’s not reading,” said the boy. “Reading is the junk they give me in little books. It’s irrelevant, and I get nothing for it.”

I can imagine a business owner’s answer to a similar question: “I don’t have time for that business intelligence stuff. I just use my accounting package, Excel and Tableau.” Pick your tools.

He has no data warehouse, no Moon-landing-size project. He’s never heard of MDM, data integration, or data modeling. But he does analyze the company’s data to help watch progress and decide what to do next.

Many people in the BI industry, I think, would say that what he does is not BI. Too bad. Vendors and those overlooked users lose out.


  1. Scott Davis says:

    Great story, Ted. Negroponte reminds us that the proper approach in almost all programs/projects/etc is NOT to add complexity and features until there is nothing left to add to the thing; rather, it is to use the simplest thing necessary to achieve the desired result.

  2. Pingback: Time for business intelligence to “get real” « onDemand Blog

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