Simply defined as the "transformation of raw data into meaningful and useful information for business purposes," business intelligence (BI) is critical for your company to understand where it stand now and in the future. With a solid BI program in place, you'll be able to pinpoint any notable areas of success and failure--both equally important to progressing and improving your product or service offering.

But the data needs to move well beyond basic information that is nicely packaged in the form of a dashboard or other similar visual platform if it's going to generate actual value for your business.

The New Wave of Business Intelligence Providers

While it may have previously been an enterprise-only domain--think of resource-rich giants such as IBM and SAP--business intelligence capabilities are now being offered from the ground up, including from cloud-based startups that cater to both small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) as well as some larger companies.

These smart solutions are helping managers understand what's really happening in their companies, going beyond traditional data points related to sales and past transactions on a surface level only.

With new players entering the business intelligence scene, it will be necessary to determine whether the data-driven insights revealed are any good--or, in other words, if they have the potential to generate actionable insights that can guide your future business decisions. There are a couple of things to look out for in order to fully understand the potential of BI reports and their role in generating actionable business insights.

Timely Access to Information

According to a detailed infographic on unlocking competitive advantages using business intelligence, prepared by Boston University citing data from Gartner, "47% of business professionals report dealing with slow or untimely access to information which impedes their ability to make decisions--which could be improved with better business intelligence."

This suggests that nearly half of business professionals are falling behind competitors due to outdated data. Therefore, while there is much hype surrounding Big Data, sometimes ensuring streamlined access to raw, smart data is of more urgency. In fact, BI data can also help drive immediate decisions that can impact companies, their employees and additional stakeholders.

For instance, by examining purchase histories or other customer behavior, managers can make informed business decisions regarding customer service on the fly.

The Right Visualization for the Data at Hand

Often enough, large amounts of data collected by BI companies will be condensed in the form of some type of report in order to be easily digested by the report's audience. But advanced technologies can help visualize even complex data intuitively and according to custom requirements and indicators.

The type of data visualization required will depend on the type of analysis you're looking to perform, whether it's comparing a specific metric to last year's benchmark or more complex trends that will involve more data points, from multiple sources and multiple structural models.

For instance, Sisense, a leading business intelligence software company, recommends--as an example of data visualization--using a scatter map (such as the one below) specifically when looking to "visualize geographical data across a region."

For many data tracking needs, a straightforward dashboard which allows you to compile website analytics data from multiple sources in one convenient view is sufficient.

However, today's sophisticated business intelligence software helps makes sense of simple and more complex data. By providing data on various areas of business operations, both back-end and front-end, BI helps individuals and companies to grasp where they stand now--and to provide insights into the future market by revealing patterns and data-based trends.

To make the most out of the benefits provided by these types of platforms, business leaders need to perform extensive internal audits. This process helps to determine what data areas they are looking to focus on, from sales to finance and other pertinent departments in between. It's a need that will continue to grow as more and more emphasis is being placed on data and results-based decision-making.

However, no matter what the scope of your BI program is, it will make sense to narrow down your efforts based on the potential for greatest ROI.