Overhauling Business Intelligence Training

Susan Hall

After finding a disconnect between what universities teach and what hiring managers are looking for in business intelligence pros, Barbara Wixom, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, is hopeful that a meeting of data experts in August can lead to a better curriculum.


"The State of Business Intelligence in Academia 2010," sponsored by the industry group Business Intelligence Congress II, includes responses from 173 professors at 129 universities and 339 students at 62 schools. Hiring managers were surveyed as well, and said that job candidates tended to be trained in the technical aspects of BI or the business aspects, but they want people well-versed in both. They also said these job candidates need more experience with real-world problems, another knock against the university programs. (This survey uses the terms "business intelligence" and "analytics" interchangeably.)


Of the 129 universities around the world that were studied, only three offered an undergraduate degree in BI and 12 offered a graduate degree. The courses offered went by a variety of names across a variety of departments. In an interview, Wixom said creating the curriculum that business is asking for will call for some major collaboration among university departments:

In the end, I think the best programs are going to be the ones that are truly interdisciplinary. So those universities that encourage the statistics departments and math and business schools to actually collaborate and create programs across those schools, those are the ones that will be the most successful.

An article at BeyeNetwork looks at what needs to happen, though this intro to the article gave me pause:

Business intelligence jobs held constant in the declining economy, but expectations were high for skill sets, time to deliver and breadth of knowledge. More importantly, business intelligence professionals are being asked to know more about the business, too!

That speaks to the continuing confusion, even within the industry, about just what business intelligence is. When asked whether BI is IT, business, statistics or what, Wixom says it's all of the above and must be treated that way.


Authors Mark Bradbourne and Christina Rouse, too, call for an overhaul of university programs:

Students have little to no exposure to business analytics; star schema design; visualization best practices; extract, transform, and load (ETL) concepts; or online analytical processing (OLAP) cube development. ...


In reviewing some of the curriculum offered for these degrees, there is very little that can be identified as being "in the neighborhood" of data warehousing or business intelligence. With that said, they are still teaching assembly language and Visual Basic, which hasn't been routinely used in business over the last decade or more. On the other side, degrees in business fare no better as they do not offer any classes in analytics, so business professionals have no way to use and analyze the data that is presented to them.

They also point to a recent survey by The Data Warehouse Institute in which 76 percent of respondents were 36 or older and only 1 percent were 25 or younger. That suggests that the wave of retirements expected to hit in the coming years will hit the analytics profession as well.


Given the explosion in data - a new IDC report predicts the amount of data will grow by 50 times by 2020 - somebody will have to manage it. And those who do so will be paid very well. According to the authors, a BI pro with three to five years of experience on average can make $90,000 a year, depending on locale, and starting salaries tend to be $40,000 to $50,000 a year. These pros report bigger raises than average, too.


Here's what they call the "dream curriculum":

For the analytics path, there needs to be a focus on examining data and thinking critically about trends, anomalies and what the data "tell us." An understanding of how to read and understand charts and graphs, the ability to do a "what-if" analysis, and the skills to be able to formulate a follow-up question based on the data are essential to compete in the world of analytics.


For the business intelligence track, there needs to be some of the analytical education and the addition of the methods in which to put these data sets and visualization together, the ability to understand the analytical questions being asked, and how to turn those questions around and provide the answers and insight thought data presentation.


On the technical side, the data warehousing track needs to focus on the fundamentals of data warehousing methodologies, databases, SQL, data modeling and the development of data cubes that will have the ability to answer the business questions.

And the authors say these need to be taught in there "somewhere":

  • Application of mathematics to measure success and failure.
  • Ability to tolerate ambiguity.
  • How to be curious and to explore that curiosity.
  • Visualization and how to communicate mathematics in visuals.
  • Attention to detail as well as attention to summary.
  • Inductive as well as deductive logic.
  • Conceptualizing a situation from multiple viewpoints.
  • Analytical writing skills.
  • Data concepts such as congruency, data domains and data outliers.
  • Multiple desktop tool proficiencies.
  • Information delivery through alternate methods such as iPads, Playbooks and smartphones.


What would you add to this "dream curriculum"?

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