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Beyond IT: Analytics Education for Professionals

Henry Morris | March 9, 2011
What type of training makes a difference? And who should be trained?

BOSTON, U.S., 9 MARCH 2011 - I recently spoke to a professor in the information systems department of the University of Georgia business school. We were talking about the explosive growth in analytics and the need for more investment in analytics education for future business professionals. He proudly spoke about the coverage of analytics, data design and management and allied technology topics in the curriculum for the IT specialization at the business school. Then I asked him about the coverage of analytics in other business school departments, aimed at students aspiring to be finance, marketing, or supply chain professionals. Why couldn't a module on applying analytics to decisions typical of a business function be inserted into each of these business classes? He agreed this would be valuable, but admitted that his school hadn't reached that point yet or even recognized this as an objective.

My point was that he was focused on training the IT professionals, and these skills were surely needed. But for every IT professional who builds an analytical model, there are many business professionals who could use the information and analysis to make higher quality decisions. IDC's study on pervasive business intelligence identified five factors as most impactful in driving analytics-based decision-making (what IDC calls an “analytical orientation”) throughout an organization. The first factor cited is training. But what type of training makes a difference? And who should be trained?

We've already seen the value of BI Competency Centers in many organizations. These bring together business and IT professionals who have gained experience on specific analytics projects and provide a shared service to other groups in the organization who are new to analytics. I've seen these centers be successful in companies in across industries from aerospace (Boeing) to consumer packaged goods (Procter and Gamble) to pharmaceuticals (Pfizer). But why not bring education into the practical use of analytics into business schools?

Analytics certainly has penetrated higher education as a subject area, in part due to investments from major vendors of analytics software. For example, SAS Institute, the market leader in advanced analytics software, has long supplied access to their software to schools in programs such as SAS Programming for High School, SAS OnDemand for Academics, and, for graduate education, the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University. The graduates of these programs have spread the word on the use of analytics in institutions around the world.

To cite another example, IBM has invested billions of dollars over the past several years in acquiring analytics companies such as Cognos, SPSS, Unica, OpenPages, CoreMetrics, and Clarity Systems. They also have increased general awareness of the power of analytics via their Smarter Planet campaign. So it is in their interest to have future business leaders trained on the IBM products. Cognos and SPSS as separate companies were doing this for years. Recent investments established a business analytics program at Fordham University and a data mining and predictive analytics program at Fordham University.

These programs and others like them have helped to increase the supply of IT professionals and consultants knowledgeable on analytics -- and expertise may well be the limiting factor in the further adoption of analytics. But it's important to include training on the use of analytics to the non-IT business professional for the specific types of decisions that impact their function.

Along these lines, I spoke with Greg Richards, Professor of Performance Management at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management. Greg used to work at Cognos and is involved in a variety of programs to bring analytics education to a broader audience from traditional business school students to executive s in continuing education programs. The emphasis is on areas that impact the most people -- e.g. balanced scorecard and cost analysis. Also, a basic ability to understand data models is included, as it is vitally important for business professionals to take ownership of the data that is the foundation for analytics. IDC's pervasive BI study indicated that performance management methodologies and a commitment to data governance were 2 areas (in addition to training) that had maximum impact in increasing the use of analytics throughout an organization.

The increase in programs in analytics and the availability of courseware that can be used across universities are positive signs that the next generation of business professionals will have a leg up when it comes to nurturing an analytical orientation that will serve them well in their careers in the years to come. Much analytics training still appears to be geared to IT professionals. The next wave in analytics training will reach out to future and current business professionals in traditional business courses -- but infused with examples and techniques drawn from the every-growing body of knowledge on how analytics can be applied for greater competitiveness and higher business performance.


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