Sometimes I think we limit ourselves on how we define operational intelligence. I mean, who says it can only apply to things like call centers or fleet management? Let’s break down those words and see what they actually mean. Operational, in this sense, refers to routine functions. Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Operational intelligence, then, should be any activity that acquires and applies knowledge related to routine functions. Anyone can do this, and they should. How are we supposed to improve those daily routines if we can’t measure them?

Take this recent article in the NY Times- “Working the Land and the Data.” The article describes how modern farmer Kip Tom uses data to improve the function of his farm in Iowa. He said “we’ve got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones.” Mr. Tom dreams of a day when drones with infrared cameras will tell him which crops are in trouble while other farmers are currently take readings from combines every three seconds on a 60,000 acre plot- just imagine the amount of data that is. Real, operational data.

But what about the intelligence part? It seems that these farmers are getting expert at acquiring data (loads of it) but the article mentions them “poring over last season’s data” all winter to gain a competitive edge or sending the data away to be analyzed. What these farmers apparently lack, and I imagine what many other industries lack, is a way to apply the knowledge they gain.

And it makes sense; did we really think that everyone could be predictors and decision-makers based on live streaming data? Let’s face it, farmers like Mr. Tom are already busy growing the food we eat and can’t really afford expensive analysts. The same problem applies to anyone at the operational level; it is unrealistic to ask them to not only do what they were paid to do but be analysts as well.

What Mr. Tom and his operational cohorts need are data visualization techniques to put information at their fingertips and let them act on it as it happens. Imagine what would happen on the farm of tomorrow if the farmers had an interface that creates simple, elegant, and artful displays of actionable data- a virtual analyst that put data in understandable terms so it can be applied.

Operational intelligence is a great idea- if we (as a technology and BI community) are intelligent in the way we execute it. Providing farmers (or others in industries we don’t immediately think of when we say “operational business intelligence”) with mounds of data and no way to apply it only gives them more to do: we have done them no favors. We need to make good on the ideal that lies at the heart of technology (and agriculture as well I suppose)- don’t just sustain life, make it better.

Suzanne Hoffman is VP of Sales at VisualCue with 25 years of business intelligence experience. You can connect with her on Twitter and see more from the team on Facebook.