Professors cite challenges in teaching BI

Some say they need better resources and that business students require more tech savvy

Although BI (business intelligence) is one of the hottest areas of enterprise IT, college professors around the world say they face a variety of challenges in training the next generation of BI workers, according to a new study.

Study author Barbara Wixom, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, received responses from 85 institutions worldwide. Wixom is also co-executive director of Teradata University Network, a learning portal sponsored by Teradata that has participation from vendors such as Microstrategy.

Mike Goul, a professor at Arizona State University who took part in the study, said he struggles to find "real-life" data sets, culled from actual company data, instead of textbooks, in order to make sure "students don't play with toy problems ... so they understand that things are messy," he said.

In addition, available BI case studies often give a good overview of a project's business goals, but don't provide enough technical information, as companies are loath to reveal such details, he said.

Many students today initially shun computer science studies because "they think that it's something that's going to be outsourced or offshored before you know it," Goul added. "One of the interesting things about BI is that it's easy to explain to both parents and students that this is a non-commodity skill set."

Major trends such as health-care reform are going to generate a lot of BI-related hiring moving forward, Goul said. "The big challenge is getting this message across."

While some of BI's grunt work -- such as developing basic reports -- could be vulnerable to offshoring, that's not the case for more advanced skills as well as for emerging areas like predictive analytics, Goul said.

"Part of the job that has no danger of being outsourced is the people who are the business analysts," added professor Hugh Watson of the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.

In contrast to Goul, Watson expressed few worries about the availability of training materials or software.

"Now there's a lot of good resources available. They're so good I don't even use a textbook anymore," he said. Sources such as Teradata's university portal, along with organizations such as The Data Warehousing Institute provide ample pickings, he said.

"Resources aren't really the particular problem. The broader problem for business schools in general, is the kind of hands-on skills we're providing our students is not where they need to be." These students tend to be familiar with Microsoft Word or Excel, but that's about it, he said.

Therefore, finance or marketing students should be encouraged to minor in information systems, Watson said.

He recalled a case study involving a bank that had turned to BI to improve customer relations. Previously, the bank's strategy "consisted of tellers giving out balloons and [lollipops] at the teller line."

"The bank head said, 'before we went to BI, we had 12 marketing analysts,'" Watson said. After the project was complete, there were still 12 positions, "but none of the same people were in the same jobs. They either couldn't handle the analytics or didn't want to."

But the real key is for students to develop both technical acumen and business savvy, since many companies are now working to evolve department-level BI efforts to enterprise-wide deployments, he added: "There are a lot of organizational and management issues. We need to turn students out who are ready to help with that."

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