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BI’s Newest Burden: Teaching

BI developers are increasingly being held responsible for teaching users within their companies, but there’s a significant problem with their new role: They aren’t teachers. Here’s a quick look at the ups and downs of bringing the BI training function in-house.

By Myron Weber, Founder and Managing Partner, Northwood Advisors

In order to train the analysts, power users, and data consumers who will become the end users of their business intelligence (BI) solutions, cash-strapped companies are increasingly foregoing specialized professional BI trainers and shifting the teaching burden to the BI professionals who develop content an approach with several potential pitfalls. BI administrators, developers, and power users are all moving to the head of the class, charged with educating the end users who rely on BI functions in the course of their jobs.

The cost-cutting benefits of this trend are simple to understand. Typical vendor-provided training can be expensive and time-consuming, spanning several days just to cover the basics, and a follow-up training session is usually required to cover the more specialized core content that users really need.

Under the emerging in-house training model, it becomes the internal BI trainer’s responsibility to gather the information the team really needs and pass it on in the most relevant and effective manner. This way, companies aren’t subjecting the entire staff to a training session that covers four hours of general information and just one hour of the information they’ll actually use.

As BI products have become much easier to use and the core programs are becoming simpler, it actually makes sense for the BI pros to take the reins in teaching the rest of the staff. However, as those products continue to pile on the bells and whistles, more training is required to take advantage of the robust features. Fortunately, there are several options available, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Vendor Training

There are clear benefits to hiring an outside firm to manage BI training. Training is a part of such firms’ core competency, and they’ll already know the best way to communicate the details of a program to the various audiences who need to master the new system. These firms provide experienced trainers who can communicate with standardized materials and examples they’ve developed through previous training sessions.

That doesn’t mean vendor training is always ideal. It can be expensive, for one thing—especially if travel expenses are involved. The quality of vendor training varies, so it’s important to check references and ask lots of questions about an instructor's own experience and mastery of the subject. Because they work with people from all kinds of backgrounds and learning abilities, such training sessions are sometimes aimed at the lowest common skill or knowledge level. That can mean a slow-moving class that may not accomplish a company’s higher-level objectives. Although vendors may be familiar with BI systems, they likely won’t be familiar with the company’s culture and structure. Generic courses can’t address the particulars of a specific business. Finally, when the training ends, so does the trainer’s accessibility to answer the questions that will inevitably arise.

Professional In-House Training

Unlike the often generic vendor training programs, contractors who provide in-house training can tailor BI training programs to address the issues and scenarios specific to the company or industry. Trainers are usually quite experienced and can take some of the benefits of vendor trainers a step further -- by tailoring course materials and examples to the business, for example. Having the trainer visit your workplace offers potential savings for travel and disruption of workplace productivity is minimized.

These powerful advantages still come at a price. Such sought-after trainers can be expensive, with companies footing the bill for custom course materials and additional costs for post-training follow-up. These trainers spend more time understanding the company, the specific BI environment and content and the firm’s goals for end users. That in-depth consulting makes in-house training much more expensive than a standard vendor program.

In-House, Developer-Led Training

Many companies find that it makes sense to engage the same team that develops their BI to provide the staff training. There’s already a rapport built between the developer and the user that facilitates support and feedback. Developers know the content inside and out, and they’ve learned a great deal about the business as the system was built. Their tailored training materials remain the property of the business to use over again as a company grows. All the expertise and training assets remain in-house.

The obvious drawback of developer-led training model is that these BI professionals aren’t teachers. Even those who really "know their stuff" may flounder when it comes to communicating the usefulness of the information they’re presenting, in addition to a stark variance in the level of training the students may receive. Many will feel anxious about their new roles as teachers—and that anxiety will likely negatively impact the quality of training they provide.

With proper support, in-house staff can be equipped to become valuable educational resources. Developers succeed in the teaching role at much higher rates when the company offers strong support and helps with the development of effective training materials. Business intelligence consulting and training companies can assist in the process, working alongside the fledgling trainers to show them what materials they’ll need, what type of course outline to follow and how to best present the material.

Success Factors

There are several things a company can do to steer their BI training programs toward success:

  • Make the objectives clear; trainers and employees alike are more likely to succeed when they know what their goals are
  • Set everyone up for success by allowing adequate time for the classes and by communicating to employees that BI training is a priority, not an after-hours afterthought
  • Select a business partner to work with the developer to create the curriculum and class materials
  • Set realistic timelines for preparation, allowing at least two hours of prep for every hour of class time.
  • As with any major undertaking, continually review the work in progress instead of assuming things are going well; be involved in the process and take the reins if work is going off track
  • Don’t waste such an incredible investment by skimping on training; find an experienced trainer, whether they’ll work off-site or in-house, to mentor the developer

It can be tempting to opt for whichever course is least expensive, but it’s important to avoid being penny wise and pound foolish. There’s little point in executing a BI initiative without ensuring the end users understand their roles and what’s required of them. Supporting such training programs with expert help and effective teaching tools can help establish a strong program that will ensure the initiative’s long-term success.

Myron Weber, founder and managing partner of Northwood Advisors, draws from more than 20 years of diverse business experience, systems thinking, unique insights, and creative approaches to solving problems when he consults and trains business teams in the development and implementation of business intelligence strategies and decision systems. He produces the “Real Time Decisions Webcast” blog and podcast, and he was recognized as an IBM Champion for Business Analytics in 2011 and 2012, reflecting his contribution to advancing BI practices and outcomes for business success. You can contact the author at

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