When I first heard about the concept of business intelligence, I imagined much more than what it’s turned out to be so far. To me, BI was personified by the kind of bright co-worker who could grasp any question and wander with you through a thicket of uncertainties, evidence and choices. In such conversations, all evidence - whether structured data, “unstructured” data or loose leaf “knowledge” - would combine to help make rational decisions.

Instead, BI turned out to be like a geeky cousin who sneered at new questions and reveled in technology and process. Varied business rules and unstructured data drove him into a deep funk.

Now, five years into writing about BI, I still have little patience for the “geeky cousin.” I’m still a generalist, like most BI users. I’m disillusioned with the top-down, totalitarian-style BI, no matter what the benefits in hygienic data may be. Don’t bother me with petty distinctions between BI, analytics and decision support. I want meaning, not tools for their own sake - and here I see glimmers.

A few years ago, I noticed the visual analysis tool Tableau. Users accustomed to the rows and columns of Excel now found surprising new facets, discoveries and paths. Every year, its customer conference absolutely foams over with enthusiasm. It’s one of the few BI events where, instead of talking about preparing to solve problems, people actually seem to be solving them.

Lyzasoft was also exciting with its attention to collaboration, before that became trendy, and for its research into how data analysts work. Recently, CEO Scott Davis gave a preview of its soon-to-be-released version to a group of industry analysts. I got the summary from Mark Madsen.

“It’s not really BI,” he says. He’s known the tool from its beginning. Instead of BI, he says, Lyzasoft went way back to decision support - to a point before BI split off and became defined by capabilities and not possibilities. That is, before it became the geeky cousin.

Lyza is three things, he explains. “It’s more of a content management tool than a BI tool, and it’s more of a social interface tool than a BI tool, and it’s more of a collaboration tool than a BI tool.” It doesn’t fit into a neat category.

Another one from outside of the usual BI orbit is Endeca. Major e-commerce sites have it running in the background, says Endeca’s Vice President of Enterprise Applications David Caruso. He says users “don’t even know they’re analyzing data.”

Then there’s the “don’t-call-it-BI” app. Bruce Yen, Guess director of BI , explained in his presentation at the recent TDWI Executive Summit that he deliberately avoided labeling it BI.

“If we were to say it’s our mobile BI/data app,” he wrote in an email to me, “I think what comes naturally to people’s mind is that it is just an un-cool app.” Instead, he says, “Apple has trained people to know that apps are helpful, easy-to-use and cool.”

I wonder what Steve Jobs would have done with BI. The good news is that the industry, defined broadly, seems to have some of its own fresh, bright inventors emerging.

Editor’s Note: Information Management is pleased to welcome Ted Cuzzillo as a new contributing columnist online.

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