Wanted: BI Stars

Demand for tech workers with that rare blend of analytics and business skills is on the rise. How companies are coping with the talent shortage.

Centerstone Research Institute built a team of business intelligence specialists for its four-year-old analytics division by hiring some new talent and bringing in some of its own IT and business workers and training them in the social sciences or technical skills they lacked.

But Russell Galyon, CRI's director of analytics, says he's now finding it tougher to expand the eight-person unit. Galyon says he can't find the unique combination of skills he needs in CRI's existing pool of employees, and he can't easily find that talent in the open labor market, either. Even a headhunter he hired to help with the search has found the task challenging.

"We get people who meet the tech qualifications, they have programming skills, but they don't have the skills to go into a meeting with a business owner and take abstract ideas and make them understandable," he says. "And that's hard to train for."

Galyon isn't the only one having trouble filling BI positions.

In a recent Computerworld reader poll, 46% of the 52 respondents said they are either currently hiring BI specialists or plan to do so in the next 12 months. Of those who are hiring, 71% said they feel that finding and recruiting BI specialists is either somewhat difficult or very difficult.

Don't expect it to get easier anytime soon.

McKinsey Global Institute's May 2011 "Big Data" report says that by 2018, demand for people with deep analytical talent could be 50% to 60% greater than the supply in the U.S.

The hiring challenge stems from the basic rule of supply and demand: Companies are creating more positions than there are qualified workers. But the roots of that equation are deep, and relate to the evolution of business intelligence software and the organizational use of data.

As organizations become increasingly sophisticated in the way they use the vast volumes of data they collect, they're finding that they need professionals with unique skills who know how to handle it. But these professionals aren't strictly IT folks, nor can they be business specialists who don't have deep technical acumen. Rather, this is an emerging hybrid position that requires someone who can manage data, handle software, ask the right business questions and present results.

"You're combining technical, functional and business acumen. It is a unique breed, and there aren't a lot of them out there," says Stacy Blanchard, who leads the organization effectiveness services and human capital unit at Accenture Analytics.

But companies must find people with these skills or train them if they want to compete in the future, Blanchard says.

According to a 2010 Accenture report called "Getting Serious about Analytics: Better Insights, Better Outcomes," a growing number of companies are developing advanced analytic capabilities to gain a competitive advantage. Those companies realize that analytics is more than just collecting and storing data, and it's more than just deploying BI technologies. It's about embedding analytics into their decision-making and strategic processes and using data to drive decisions.

Not surprisingly, Blanchard says demand for BI specialists increases as the use of BI matures at those companies -- and as others inch toward that model.

Where Does BI Sit?

But just as the maturity of BI deployment varies from company to company, so does the way companies deploy BI specialists, Blanchard and other industry observers say.

David Menninger, an analyst at Ventana Research, says his firm has found that BI responsibilities sit in one of three places: in business units, in the IT shop or in an IT operation within a business unit, with the best scenario for any company being one that allows IT and business people to work collaboratively.

"When you can establish that relationship between IT and the lines of business, that produces the best results," Menninger says, noting that there are two functions -- management of information and analysis of it -- rolled into business intelligence.

"I don't think you can do that in one function. You need two resources to do those tasks," he adds, which is why IT departments working with business divisions is crucial if companies want to get significant value from their BI investments.

In fact, his research found that "innovative companies are twice as likely to use their IT department to meet business requests and three times less likely to 'outsource' [that is, rely on off-the-shelf analytics or outside consultants] compared to tactical organizations."

"A good line-of-business manager will understand the type of analyses they want to perform and will look to IT to accomplish those things. A good IT manager or CIO will focus on the technologies that will enable their business lines to do those things and will take those concepts to the business functions," he says. "The idea is you've got to get those two organizations working together. They both have a role to play. In an effective organization, once a technology or application has been selected or created, IT is responsible for making processes efficient."

Like others, Menninger says these responsibilities require highly skilled workers who can work between business and IT, but he adds that many companies are having trouble locating such people -- whether they want to use existing employees or hire new ones.

"Everyone is competing for a scarce set of resources, so the best option is to train," he says, noting that IT professionals could learn more analytical, business and statistical skills and business people could learn about data management and programming.

Some organizations are successfully finding ways around any BI labor shortage.

Carl Ganter, managing director of Circle of Blue, an international network of journalists, scholars and citizens focused on water-related issues, says BI tools have been critical to the organization's work. He says people in all divisions at Circle of Blue have received training in business intelligence and on the QlikView BI technologies the organization uses.

"There is a learning curve, but we're a very nimble, innovative group. So we start by asking what do we want to know and we backtrack and figure out how to get that. Then we rely on partners, staff and vendors to do it," he says. "Nimble organizations can do that, even if they're larger, but siloed organizations can't." Most, however, haven't been as successful in training or recruiting staff.

Brian Veara, manager of decision resources at ThedaCare, a community health system based in Appleton, Wis., says he needs a balance of technical expertise, business knowledge and analytical acumen within his staff of 26. "Hiring people with all three skills is difficult," he says. "It is a set of skills that's in short supply, and it has to be developed. You can't just say, 'I want a BI specialist, come work for me.' Because of those three buckets, one or two will be severely underdeveloped and you'll have to round out your team."

Veara expects that to be the case for a while: "This is a highly skilled, highly in-demand position, and that [demand] will only increase in the future."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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