Review: Business unIntelligence (Barry Devlin)

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To start with, this book was nothing like what I expected – but that proved to be no bad thing, far from it.

Dr. Devlin cuts through all the hype about big data, the cloud, data science and the rest to present his thesis on what really matters when it comes to information management – and, naturally, where we BI folks fit into it all.

Not surprisingly, Devlin is sympathetic to BI veterans, and seeks to demonstrate how the accumulated knowledge and experience that we bring to the table should be harnessed rather than ignored in favour of exciting new technologies. He does this by tracing back the history of IT and its relationship with business, showing how the two worlds matured independently of one another – and that this historic issue has led to modern day frustrations and misunderstandings. In his IDEAL world (an acronym as well as a ray of optimism) Devlin envisages the coming together of business and IT to deal with the challenges of the information explosion, not only in terms of nuts-and-bolts data but also social media, user-generated content and other ‘soft’ information. In Devlin’s opinion, BI practitioners are the best people to bridge this divide.

Of course, Devlin doesn’t let us BI folks off too easily: he highlights many problems in the approach that has been taken in BI and is very candid about what he thinks of the future prospects for the traditional data warehouse (which he himself helped to father). But as he is always keen to stress, whatever BI has gotten wrong in the past, it is still the best hope for successfully managing data (of all sizes) in the future. In the rush to embrace Hadoop and its menagerie of programming languages, a lot of the best practices are at risk of being forgotten or, worse, treated as irrelevant.

This isn’t just a book about technology: Devlin explores the history of process management, business models, psychology, sociology and a host of other topics. It is an ambitious book in many ways, though this leads me to comment on what I felt were its shortcomings. It *is* a book of grand scope, but I felt that in places it failed to deliver. The dabbling in philosophy, psychology and the like felt a little amateurish at times, and the attempt to position BI within the grand narrative of information management through the ages felt a little flat in places. Another criticism I would make is that I recoiled somewhat from Devlin’s love of jargon and coining new words or acronyms. It’s fine to come up with maybe one or two new concepts in a book, but there must have been at least ten new acronyms to juggle (many of which I forgot as I was progressing from chapter to chapter) and the choice of “biz-tech ecosystem” as a label to identify the unity of business and technology was, I felt, very grating. Of course, this is just my opinion; I have never much liked jargon and often feel the world of technology and BI would be much better served without it. Introducing a raft of new jargon and acronyms to an industry already bursting at the seams with the stuff therefore felt counter-productive to Devlin’s otherwise very laudable aims.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and was impressed by a number of Devlin’s insights. I would certainly recommend it, not just to BI bods like me, but to business professionals, content management types and anyone looking to dip their toes into the waters of big data.

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