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Business intelligence is any set of tools or techniques that can convert data into actionable information. It’s also become one of the most talked about business concepts within the past year. While the concept is nothing new, the ability for it to be applied to a wider range of companies has given the topic new life.

Today, most people see business intelligence, often shortened to BI, as being related to pieces of software that collects and helps to analyze data. This includes everything from online customer survey and website traffic statistics to inventory and sales forecasting app suites.

But business intelligence was been with us long before the advent of online forms, data tracking, cookies and database programming. The term itself — business intelligence — dates back to 1865 when Richard Millar Devens used the phrase to describe how a banker succeeded by using information wisely. The ability to interpret and apply information quickly that is at the heart of today’s business intelligence.

Since Devens coined the phrase, others used it throughout history to describe not only great business acumen, but the development of technology and practices that could aid in the effort. In the 1960s, it began to be applied in relation to decision support systems (DSS). DSS was one of the first computer-aided models people could use to help with planning, strategizing and other facets of decision making. Other types of software were soon added to the mix, including online analytical processing and executive information systems.

As the software and tools evolved, so did the concept of business intelligence. Today, it’s an umbrella terms for any set of methods used to improve decision making when it comes to business.

For a long time, it was also something only larger companies could invest in. The software needed to collect and break down the data was a huge investment itself — but the real price came in the business analysists required to interpret the data and translate it into something business owners could actually use.

These days, however, advancements in programming have made data collection and interpretation more accessible than ever before. Now a company can use an inventory and sales forecasting app that analyzes inventory fluctuations, sales and website usage statistics to aid in everything from purchasing to marketing.

Business intelligence is no longer a luxury for the top-tier companies. In the 21st century global marketplace, it’s an essential tool for any company that wants to succeed. More importantly, it’s a way to gain new insight for companies who want to remain at the forefront of their industry.