What’s the difference between Business Intelligence and Big Data?

I’m often asked the following question:

What is the difference between Business Intelligence and Big Data?

Before getting into my approach to answering that question, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. When most people say “Business Intelligence” they’re talking about the class of products that have been implemented in most organizations, not the actual information or knowledge that is derived from the use of these systems. When it comes to Big Data, most people aren’t quite sure what they are talking about…some are talking about the size of the data, some are referring to the approach to analysis and others are talking about the process as a whole.

One of the problems that exists today is ensuring everyone understands what big data is and isn’t. While that is a discussion for another time, in this post I’ll simply say that Big Data isn’t something you buy, implement, configure and start using like you would do with Business Intelligence systems. It’s much more complicated than that.

Back to the original question: What is the difference between BI and Big Data?

I’ve never really been able to answer that question as fully as I’ve wanted to because most people aren’t willing to sit down and listen to me walk through the history of business intelligence and big data and explain their differences.

After many attempts at finding a succinct way to describe the differences, I finally figured out that most people don’t care about the technical differences or the history. Most people just want a ‘sound bite’ answer so I came up with this response:

Business Intelligence helps find answers to questions you know. Big Data helps you find the questions you don’t know you want to ask.

When I answer the question this way, I tend to get the nod of the head and and response similar to “…well that sounds really complicated!”.

It is complicated. That’s the difference between Business Intelligence and Big Data. You don’t have easy, well defined reports and answers with big data like you do with BI. You don’t have a single system to implement and manage with big data like you do with BI.  Don’t get me wrong…BI systems aren’t “simple” and the thought and planning that needs to go into BI systems and planning is very detailed, but BI and Big Data are completely different.

Business Intelligence systems have their place in business. They deliver neat, well-designed answers to neat, well-designed questions. Nothing wrong with that…but most businesses don’t have neat, well-designed questions these days. In fact, most organizations don’t really know what questions they need to be asking.

That’s the difference between BI and Big Data.

Eric Brown

Eric D. Brown, D.Sc.

Eric is a technology and marketing consultant with an interest in using technology and data to solve real-world business problems. In recent years, he has combined sentiment analysis, natural language processing and big data approaches to build innovative systems and strategies to solve interesting problems. EricBrown.com