The Business Intelligence Education Problem

Originally published August 26, 2008

What in the World is Business Intelligence?

I recently received a copy of Conde Nast Portfolio and noticed the words “Business Intelligence” on the cover’s edge. When I looked for an article on business intelligence (BI), I realized there was none. The words were just there to suggest the magazine’s content.

Business intelligence is for many of us in the field a specific set of analytic skills and technologies. We know that BI refers to the technologies, applications and practices for the collection, integration, analysis and presentation of information used for decision making. Do those outside of the field share this understanding?

In Competing on Analytics, authors Thomas Davenport and Jeanne Harris argue that business intelligence involves sophisticated quantitative and statistical analysis and predictive modeling. The emphasis in this book is on analytical competition. Vendors, however, often define BI in terms of specific technologies such as data mining, data warehouses, financial analysis, decision support systems, data cubes, dashboards, OLAP, market basket analysis and other tools. What these technologies are used for, the education needed and the role of BI in business are oftentimes not clearly articulated. Hence, to the average layperson, business intelligence and its career opportunities may be misunderstood or unknown.

At Saint Joseph’s University, we offer business intelligence programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. These programs are only a few years old, and they have only recently begun to attract the attention of our on-campus students. One of the issues our program has is that the typical college student has no idea what business intelligence is or what it means. They understand the traditional business majors such as marketing, finance, management and accounting, but they have never heard of business intelligence as a field of study.

What concerns me is how we as educators and practitioners can begin to educate high school and college students [and their parents] that business intelligence is an attractive position in industry that deals with decision making. That is, how do we articulate and promote to people that business intelligence is a viable major and career choice for students?

Let’s face it, most people have heard of computer science, information systems or management information systems. In many universities, these fields are offered as majors. However, having these majors does not necessarily mean that graduates of these programs are capable of serving as BI professionals. While they may have a thorough education in technology and in many of its applications, they have not necessarily been educated in the analytics needed to serve in a BI function.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many students who major in math, statistics, operations management, finance or management science who have strong analytical skills but are weak in their technology capabilities. In their education, they may never be introduced to what business intelligence is or understand its role in business. And this is not surprising to me, because most institutions do not even use the term business intelligence in any of their programs or course descriptions.

Unless we are willing to say that degrees in computer science, information systems or statistics qualify a person to be a business intelligence professional, then I think we have work to do. Vendors, educators and the press need to think about how we can market business intelligence as a distinct field of practice so as to attract the attention of universities and students in order to formalize it as a distinct field of study. The success criteria for such an endeavor would be the proliferation of business intelligence majors at universities with students increasingly declaring it as a major.

I don’t have to tell you that persons with BI qualifications are in high demand. As one employer told me, “Finding people with strong technology skills is easy. But what I need is people with strong technology and analytic skills, and I’ll take everyone you’ve got! They’re hard to find.”

A major ERP vendor recently told me that many of his clients bought BI applications, but they weren’t using them because they couldn’t find people in their organizations that were properly skilled to use them. He said that this situation was not uncommon in many organizations. The consequence of this is that data sense-making opportunities in these firms are being compromised. This means that the potential yield in intellectual capital, knowledge that can be exploited, is not being fully realized.

Parents of many of my students soured on information systems as a career because of the dot-com bust, the Y2K issues, and the outsourcing of IT jobs. While the U.S. government predicts a growing IT job market, many computer science and IS programs in universities are having trouble attracting students to these majors. This shouldn’t be the case with business intelligence.

What I tell parents and students is that business intelligence is different from the traditional IS business major. In our BI programs, we educate our students to be technology-savvy analysts who can work in any business discipline. Moreover, business intelligence is a field that I don’t think can be outsourced, because effective BI is always context and decision-maker dependent. BI qualified persons can work for IT if they want to, but they can also work for any functional area. BI professionals are not IT people; they have additional business skills that set them apart!

What I think needs to happen here is that BI industry participants need to make a concerted effort to market business intelligence as a distinct field of endeavor that will have “legs.” We need to start talking about, supporting and promoting BI as an academic program of study, not just in technical institutes but also in universities. And universities will, I think, increasingly create programs of study in business intelligence if they understand that BI is not a fad, but a viable, well-defined discipline with specific educational requirements.

Potential Solution

The first thing I think we need to do is to stop talking about business intelligence as a toolbox. BI involves the use of analytical techniques and technologies in an integrated and complex manner. Describing BI just in terms of technologies always understates what is actually going on. It’s like saying IT is databases, programmers and computers. It’s the value creation that matters. We need to focus on what BI is and what it means and can do for business. Then, we need to be able to describe how a BI qualified person is educated, what they need to be able to do, and what their jobs and career path can look like.

The good news is that “business intelligence” sounds cool to students and there is a lot of press that provides anecdotal evidence that it is a viable business enterprise – there are a lot of jobs out there. The bad news is that most students have no idea what it is.

What I propose is a partnership between practitioners, vendors and academic institutions to educate people about business intelligence as a field of endeavor. This should involve the creation of a nonprofit entity whose role is to promote business intelligence and to act as a clearinghouse for educational materials about the field.

One way the BI industry can help itself is to support existing academic BI programs with technology support and funds to promote research in the field. This tactic is well proven as is evidenced by the creation and continued existence of information systems programs in universities and multiple quality research journal outlets.

However, what will also need to happen is for promotional materials to not be focused exclusively on technology. Rather, information will have to first explain and show BI’s role in business, and then focus on the importance of analytics, technology, and communications and people skills needed for achieving success in the field. In addition, examples of careers and salary data will need to be provided.

At Saint Joseph’s, we are considering opening a Business Intelligence Center. Its goal would be to address the very issues discussed herein. We want to educate students, employers and peer institutions about business intelligence as a business discipline with distinct educational requirements. This proposed non-profit entity would act as a clearinghouse for industry education, helping to promote the field while also educating the public (including other universities) about BI as a field of study and as a career choice. Moreover, it would conduct research and help firms to begin to better standardize job functions and titles in the field.

If you share my concerns, please contact me. Whether it is our institution or some other entity, I think managing BI as a discipline and field of study has become critical. Otherwise, the procurement of qualified candidates for important BI jobs will remain haphazard, frustrating and unnecessarily constrained. I have already heard some employers say that they will seek qualified talent overseas if necessary. This would be an unfortunate development as there is a plethora of potential talent in this country. But to attract it, we are going to have to get our act together, harness this field into a cogent and cohesive discipline, and then promote the heck out of it. If we work together to formalize and promote BI as an educational field of study, I think all of us – educational institutions, students, employers, vendors and organizational decision makers – will benefit.

I worry that business intelligence inevitably will be perceived as just another buzzword. Even worse, I fear, is that the potential benefit of business intelligence will be marginalized simply because firms will not have been able to realize its real potential value for facilitating better evidence-based decision making.

I look forward to your feedback.

  • Richard HerschelRichard Herschel

    Richard is Chair of the Department of Decision & System Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Before becoming an educator, he worked at Maryland National Bank, Schering-Plough Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, and Columbia Pictures as a systems analyst. He received his BA in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, his Master’s in Administrative Sciences from Johns Hopkins, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Management Information Systems. He has earned the Certified Systems Professional designation, and he has written extensively about both knowledge management and business intelligence. Dr. Herschel can be reached at herschel@sju.edu.

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