Business Intelligence Basics - Tech Learning

Business Intelligence Basics

Is your district's data analysis system producing actionable results? In part 2 of our series on data management, we take a look at how applying the practice of Business Intelligence to your accumulated data can help you drill down to the specifics that'll help meet your goals.
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Multi-modal means of analyzing data can produce actionable results.

School systems face many decisions in developing and maintaining learning environments that create success for all students. From district operations to the classroom, we implement solutions and take action based on the information we have at hand. While there is no shortage of data, turning that data into useful information is as much an art as it is a science. Sophisticated and useful business intelligence tools that can aid in decision-making and change are now accessible to district leaders to help with this process.

Intelligence Defined

According to Wikipedia, business intelligence "refers to technologies, applications, and practices for the collection, integration, analysis, and presentation of business information and also sometimes to the information itself." Accessing data from data warehouses, data marts or existing databases, business intelligence (BI) systems allow districts to see their data from historical, current and predictive viewpoints through a variety of analyses and reports. This multi-modal means of analyzing data can include simple querying and reporting tools, data visualizations, interactive tools such as pivot tables or online analytical processing methods (OLAP) as well as sophisticated data mining methods. Digital dashboards of key performance indicators (KPI) are another example of business intelligence applications. One key difference for business intelligence systems from other analysis and reporting applications is its analytic functions.


Business intelligence tools help us answer the "why" or "how can we" questions of our data. For example, enterprise resource planning systems (ERP) or student information systems (SIS) often answer our questions regarding the current or historical status of events and data. For example, "How many students did not pass the state assessment in grade four in reading last year?" Business intelligence systems provide the next level of analysis to examine predictions of future levels of performance or explanations of the factors that contributed to the outcome. In this sense, the focus of a business intelligence system would be to ask, "How many more days of instruction would have helped these students’ performance and in what particular curriculum goals or objectives? Analytic techniques such as optimization, forecasting and advanced statistical analyses are common components of these systems and move further beyond the actual data to "what-if" scenarios and predictions.

Examples of questions that analytics within business intelligence systems could help address in your district could include:

  • Which students are most at-risk of dropping out?
  • Where should we focus our professional development to help meet our adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets?
  • Why are the number of disciplinary infractions and suspensions spiking in our elementary schools?
  • Can we predict how many more teachers will be needed at each school to manage our student population growth over the next five years?
  • What are the characteristics of the teachers in our district who are likely to remain in our district for more than three years?


As with choosing systems such as data warehouses or enterprise resource planning solutions, selecting a business intelligence application that meets the unique needs of your school district is a complex task. Review of your data, infrastructure, budget and support systems will be critical. Initial conversations with vendors that provide for a discussion of specific questions and informational needs might help provide a good fit with how their solution addresses your current and future business intelligence needs.

Business intelligence is not a crystal ball for the demanding decisions facing school leaders but it does offer greater precision and analysis to our decision-making. When properly implemented, these systems allow us to guess less and act more.

Helpful links:


Lane B. Mills, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program at East Carolina University. A former Assistant Superintendent for Accountability and Technology for a North Carolina school system, Dr. Mills was a 2004 Technology and Learning Ed Tech Leader of the Year finalist.



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