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It all started with executive information systems, in the days when the term “executive” was considered classy enough to endow a computer program with some boardroom cachet.

Inevitably, this was not enough for the marketing drive that is the real force behind all successful software sales curves and a new family of products emerged from the laudable aim of making sense of huge databases.

As the corporate database grew, it metamorphosed into a repository and then a data warehouse.

Enter a phrase that earned its spurs as one of the few self-explanatory and logical category terms in the history of computing - data mining. This explains immediately the process of digging some pertinent facts out from under the rubble of information caused by an explosion in sales of databases and associated systems software.

But this sheer simplicity earned the phrase data mining the undying enmity of every software industry marketing guru. The conventional teaching that a product can stand out only by sounding different dictated that every new player entering the market would attempt to coin a new expression to promote its own data mining tool.

So the data warehouse grew inexplicably into a business warehouse and the practical catch-all term “business intelligence” (BI) was born.

While BI suffers from being a broad expression of many different IT efforts it does serve to set the products involved apart from the mass of applications. Above all, BI should assist decision-making by providing one single consistent version of the truth culled from a multitude of sources.

BI software is specialised and high-powered, providing a language written specifically for the analysis of large chunks of data within a short period of time. It can be the secret ingredient in a successful customer relationship management (CRM) project.

CRM is a much-abused acronym that gets attached to just about any operation involving a customer base and computer resources. But without BI, CRM remains exactly where it started out, as a rather more glamorous term coined to disguise the mundane reality of computer telephony integration (CTI) and call centres.

BI itself spun off a horde of offspring such as corporate performance management (CPM). The discipline of CPM is no different in essence from any of the terms or acronyms that preceded it. The struggle to focus IT spending on a useful commercial goal just carries on.

But CPM has given rise to the ubiquitous mention of “corporate dashboards”. Like data mining before it the dashboard is an admirably honest concept, describing various graphical interfaces that permit senior but decidedly non-technical people to make sense out of the avalanche of statistics collated by any enterprise-wide software application.

Perhaps CPM is better understood by the idea of grasping which way the business is headed at any given time, but that would not reassure procurement committees as much as the word management does.

Another concept, the “balanced scorecard” is often mentioned in the same breath as the dashboard, but much talk of scorecards is misleading.

In theory the scorecard applies a rigorous methodology to measuring performance and includes non-financial factors to help arrive at a true picture of business performance.

This fine idea is undermined by the fact that financials are guaranteed to elbow softer metrics such as customer satisfaction out of the way whenever accounts are scrutinised.

Somewhere during the rise of this family of confusing and overlapping phrases the world of commerce saw a concerted effort to promote knowledge management (KM). As companies jostled to appoint a chief knowledge officer (CKO), KM was hailed as a formal means of drawing together informal vats of deep domain experience possessed by individual employees.

Employees spotted the value of their own experience and declined to participate in attempts to draw knowledge out of them before they defected to a better paid job in a rival concern. CKOs coincided with the worst excesses of the dotcom boom and mostly suffered a similarly ignominious fate.

BI and data mining live on, despite attempts to bury them underneath slabs of fresh jargon generated by the whole CPM debate. The lesson for users is that the core requirement of harnessing information and squeezing value out of decades of IT spending is more important than ever.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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