Business Intelligence is crucial for corporate success in Covid times


In the age of knowledge ushered in by the IT revolution, success in business is mandated on the corporate entity being well-informed about the environ around and committed to knowledge-based decision making — the latter being the new hallmark of leadership, different from the past in as much as no one could claim any more to be a leader mainly on the strength of ‘inheritance’ or personal ‘charisma’.

The Covid disaster disrupted not only the flow of relevant information from outside needed by businesses, but also the internal processes of communication and evaluation of where did the organisation and its manpower stand in the scheme of things.

In the new age, ‘competitiveness’ has acquired a global dimension because the use of information or data could enable a ‘smart’ player to score over a bigger rival in a ‘borderless’ market — this challenger could be operating out of any place on the globe.

Corporate houses, therefore, are investing a great deal on establishing a system that would guarantee access to information about the external factors impacting business — such as political environ and the contours of policy making by the government, law and order management, state of economy, including the quantum of ‘demand’, socio-cultural preferences and discordance, if any, and technological advancement existing in the identified geography.

A basic principle of information gathering is to take stock of what is already known within the organisation, before proceeding to tap the external sources for any specific requirement.

Internally available information — it was realised — is a resource not to be missed out. ‘No one knows everything but everybody knows some thing’ — this is a corollary of the age of knowledge, and the corporates rightly realised the importance of tapping the ‘tacit’ knowledge all employees carry with them that did not become available for the cause of the organisation only because the latter did not build a system of garnering it.

The term Business Intelligence is now being used for a wide variety of information gathering arrangements — perhaps without an adequate understanding of the difference that exists between the words ‘Information’ and ‘Intelligence’.

Information can be defined as any ‘intelligible fact or data that tells you something you did not already know’ — this clearly grades people on the scale of being well-informed since in a specific context someone would be ‘better informed’ than the other and thus would have a competitive edge.

Intelligence is by definition an information that tells you ‘what lies ahead’. It is thus clear that all intelligence is information but all information is not intelligence. Between two ‘peak performers’ who have the same knowledge of the past and a matching capability of handling all matters in the present, the only thing that would put one ahead of the other is intelligence or the insight into the future.

What lies ahead is either a set of ‘opportunities’ or a cluster of ‘risks’ and both these are crucial for business advancement. Intelligence is also described as ‘information for action’ and clearly no business organisation would sit on information of intelligence value that gives a clue about an attractive option of profitable growth or an impending danger on the horizon.

In the new age we live in, instant communication and borderless sharing of information have made prompt ‘action’ a prerequisite for success and made ‘time’ a new resource adding on to the earlier three — ‘finances’, ‘man power’ and exclusively owned ‘information’.

The prolonged Covid crisis that created the hybrid work environment made human resource management far more challenging and added to the difficulties of tracking demand, supply chain and level of productivity.

The function of Business Intelligence (BI) faces difficult tasks of building the information base, setting new parameters for data analytics and helping the process of reviewing the business plans.

Covid no doubt acted as an equaliser for businesses — big and small — but it certainly put premium on corporates which had already adopted technology for globalised operations while at the same time it made manufacturing business a far more tedious proposition.

A lot of technology-based systems of internal management, performance evaluation and human resource deployment are already in operation, but in the Covid environ the real challenge facing Business Intelligence is updating and consolidating data and carrying out a meaningful analysis of the same in order to help maximisation of business performance.

The problem of data analytics in Covid times entailed tapping of new information sources like social media, digital platforms and electronic news channels — in a situation of diminishing ‘direct’ human outreach.

Information obtained through direct human interaction yielded intelligence that was basic to business studies carried out earlier.

Business Intelligence output has now become more a test of competent analysis that would provide an ‘insight’ into the future — earlier BI was mostly engaged in the collation of raw data to identify business trends in general.

Business Intelligence unit today must grasp the significance of Albert Einstein’s famous saying that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Only a human mind has the ability to look beyond what the available facts or data mean in the present to read into what could happen in the period ahead. A standing example in this context is the 9/11 Commission report that faulted CIA for not showing enough imagination in handling the available information to the effect that some suspects taking training in a flying club on the US soil were interested only in learning how to take off but not in the technique of ‘landing’.

Use of the human trait of ‘imagination’ has a bearing on the rising expectations from Artificial Intelligence(AI) or Machine Learning as the tools for Business Intelligence.

AI no doubt multiplies the capacity of the organisation to analyse data from newer angles and derive benefits from that in such areas as the handling of human resources, maintaining productivity and what is extremely important in Covid environ, identifying the points of ‘course correction’ for quick action.

Business Intelligence, however, will always be a cross between technology application and interpretation of social conduct of the people in a given environment — that the latter would always be a function of human mind should never be forgotten. The fundamental point to remember is that both ‘business’ and ‘intelligence’ are all about human activity.

The word intelligence has traditionally been associated with the domain of national security, but in today’s world the importance of intelligence extends to all business and professional enterprises whose success in gaining an edge over their competitors depends on their ability to discern the ‘roadblocks’ and ‘breakthroughs’ of the future and act on the intelligence that is made available to that effect.

The need to know and know quickly is the key factor today for undertaking any purposeful initiatives since Covid has created uncertainties and lack of stability in every sphere of business.

There has to be a process of decision-making that fits in a rolling business plan catering to a changing scenario. Earlier, vast amount of information was available in the public domain by way of publications, online data bases, media, conferences and findings of think-tanks.

Major corporates across the world established an intelligence division often in the name of planning cell or research unit to churn out ‘insights’ through a comprehensive analysis of the open source information.

In a situation where human outreach is curtailed, any in-person interaction or online feed back has become more valuable since information garnered from that can be presumed to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg indicating a larger phenomenon.

Analysis will have to be nuanced and imaginative and not rigid about the parameters applied in earlier normal times. Merits of good analysis — using only reliable data, keeping it free of personal bias and not tweaking the readings to please the ‘masters’ — will, however, always hold.

A lasting impact of Covid hardships on business is that it has made progress of an enterprise more dependent on customer’s real satisfaction with the product or service quality, reduced the scope of making quick profits through less than honourable means and enhanced the concept that the individual is at the centre of all productivity even in these times of supremacy of technology.

It is the technological base on which home delivery businesses like Amazon have flourished, but they have also enlarged their human employment, dispelling apprehensions that technology, including its emerging component of AI, would lead to unemployment.

Covid has speeded up the movement of socio-economic life towards a new normal and this is an ‘evolutionary’ shift that would come to stay. Importance of upskilling, reskilling and multi-tasking will be realised, flexibility about work place without detriment to productivity will intrinsically promote work-life balance and the cause of harmonious technology-social equation will be buttressed. BI has to cope up with these transformative factors.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) led to the generation of a huge amount of data ushering in the importance of data analytics that could see the ‘invisible’ components in the data not clear to humans themselves.

This would certainly continue to help the organisation but Business Intelligence has to go beyond that to correlate technology with the society’s responses to identify any new directions of business operations.

In the Covid times, this became doubly important. Analysis of data for the sake of analysis is an empty exercise beyond a point — businesses need applied intelligence all the time — and the corporate leadership therefore must have an ongoing evaluation of the Business Intelligence function in the enterprise.

A directionless BI can neither set the course for a future strategy, nor can it work for internal reforms like optimal use of man power, changed yardsticks of performance measure and cost-effectiveness of operations. Setting the goals for BI and owning its deductions is what a successful business organisation must do to keep up its competitive advantage.

(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)

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