I’ve often said and written that the greatest enabler or impediment to success with business intelligence isn’t technology – it’s people. So education needs to be a core part of a successful BI strategy, right? After all, as British humor columnist Miles Kington wrote, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Of course, there are many forms of education. So how can organizations create an environment of BI and data fluency in their business? How can they train people on BI principles to ensure wisdom in their initiatives?
When I recently brought up BI education as a topic in one of my weekly #BIWisdom tweet chats on Twitter, it was clear that the participants (BI users, consultants, vendors and professors) differentiate between BI training and BI education. They pointed out:
- In most cases, training on BI tools takes place before education on how BI can help the business.
- Social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter have helped quite a bit. There’s no shortage of analytics success stories.
- BI vendors have taken to providing as much in-line help as possible. Ergo, those with good tutorials are doing well. Of course, the training is only tied to specific tools.
- Not all BI tools are intuitive like Google search or email. But we need to raise users’ BI knowledge beyond how to use the tools.
B.F. Skinner, an American behaviorist, author and former Harvard professor of psychology, taught that human actions depend on the consequences of previous actions, which become reinforcing. If the consequences are good, the actions that led to it will become more probable. I asked the #BIWisdom tribe about what organizations need to focus on in BI education to lead to good consequences. Advice flowed from the group:
- Education has to start with data and build from there. Users must learn how to run an organization using facts.
- The “need to know” vs. “nice to know” starts with when and why to ask “What business problem are you trying to solve” and then how to proceed with BI given the answer to that question.
- Any rollout of a new BI solution should include educating users on how it delivers on the requirements they set forth.
- They need to learn both the theory and practice of BI. If they don’t know the “why” – the 10k-foot view – how can they effectively do the practice? For instance, having a deeper understanding of how values are calculated could be crucial.
- Users need to be educated about statistics, in particular that correlation does not equal causation.
- BI 101 needs to start with what kind of data you need to know before you can make a particular decision. Sometimes data requests don’t match the problem people are trying to solve. BI education needs to have context-aware training baked in.
The tweet chat ended with two other important observations. First, BI education requires a mandate from management. Second, every BI meeting is an education opportunity.
Bottom line: In my experience, BI education is often a low-level priority and users are sometimes left to fend for themselves. Education also is a line item that often gets cut during hard times. Not elevating BI education to a high priority is a strategic mistake, as education around data is key to BI success. Decision makers as well as lower-level users need to be taught how to interrogate data and find the hidden information.
Different levels of users in an organization need different capabilities; thus, they need different levels of education. However, all users need enough knowledge to identify issues with the data and analysis.
As a couple of participants in the #BIWisdom tribe pointed out, ensuring that BI education takes place requires strategic-level commitment on the part of senior management. I would add that it requires an organization that has evolved to recognize sophisticated aspects of business intelligence processes – one that has someone in place who is responsible for ensuring BI best practices.
A Business Intelligence Competency Center (BICC) is ideal for overseeing education. A BICC group defines, documents, promotes and delivers best-practice BI solutions. If a BICC is in place, education ought to be part of its charter.
I think there are two ways to think about the importance of BI education activities, whether ideally under the umbrella of a BICC or not. It’s a way of evangelizing “the art of the possible” with BI across the organization. Another way of thinking about it is investing in organizing for success with BI.
Howard Dresner is president, founder and chief research officer at Dresner Advisory Services, LLC, an independent advisory firm. He is one of the foremost thought leaders in Business Intelligence and Performance Management, having coined the term “Business Intelligence” in 1989. He has published two books on the subject, The Performance Management Revolution — Business Results through Insight and Action, and Profiles in Performance — Business Intelligence Journeys and the Roadmap for Change. He hosts a weekly tweet chat (#BIWisdom) on Twitter each Friday. Prior to Dresner Advisory Services, Howard served as chief strategy officer at Hyperion Solutions and was a research fellow at Gartner, where he led its Business Intelligence research practice for 13 years.