Big Data and Business Intelligence: What’s the Difference?

March 2, 2020 • Shannon Flynn


You see the word “data” a lot nowadays. It’s not just a word people throw around, either, as businesses take a growing interest in fields like big data and business intelligence. But what do these things mean?

You’ll see articles about how most large companies have a chief data officer or how big data is improving elections all around the web. Big data and business intelligence (BI) are clearly both important, and both deal with data, so you may think they’re the same thing. You wouldn’t be the first to think that, but it’s not quite right.

Big data and BI are connected but not the same. To fully understand their importance and how they relate to each other, you should know the difference between the two.

Big Data

You’ll see people apply the phrase “big data” to just about everything. While it can apply to a wide variety of fields, people aren’t always correct when they label something as big data. So what is it? Big data is the collection and analysis of massive pools of data from multiple different streams.

Not all kinds of data analytics are big data. Big data is distinguished by the four Vs: velocity, volume, variety and veracity. You can consider data analytics “big” when it’s fast, vast, varied and insightful.

Companies use big data in many different ways. A lot of businesses use big data insights from sources like Google to optimize targeted marketing strategies. Some use it to sift through their customers’ purchasing patterns to predict when people will want certain items.

Business Intelligence

Business intelligence is similar to big data in that it involves drawing insights from data streams. But BI is different, mostly in that it’s more focused. Unlike big data, BI typically draws data from just a few sources, and it uses structured, actionable information to answer a specific question.

With rapid, significant changes like the growth of the on-demand economy, businesses know they need to make quick, effective adjustments. BI can give them answers about how they can adapt. Big data gives you broad information, revealing questions you wouldn’t think to ask while BI gives specific answers.

Businesses often use BI to examine their financial performance. They can use it to determine budgets or find ways they could cut down on wasted resources. With tools like natural language processing (NLP), businesses can even ask BI programs direct questions and get relevant results.

How the Two Work Together

Big data and BI are distinct practices, but they can work together to bring out the best of each other. You may think of big data as an evolution of BI, that’s not entirely accurate. The two serve different purposes, and because of that, you can use both at the same time.

Businesses can use big data to optimize their BI strategy. Think of them as different steps in the same process. Big data can give you insights that tell you what questions you should be asking, and then BI can answer those questions.

Big data can inform BI, and BI can make big data practical. Just because the two are different doesn’t mean they’re in opposition. Both BI and big data are changing the way businesses operate.