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Marketing IT In-House: Take Time to Specialize

BI specialists and generalists can help each other make the most of what they bring to the table, but fulfilling experiences come more often to those who take time to differentiate themselves with specializations.

By Max T. Russell, Max and Max Communications

One of the most powerful demonstrations of the superiority of specialized knowledge over general knowledge happened when a good friend of mine made an appointment to have his family doctor look at some wart-like growths.

I told him not to waste his time. "Go to a dermatologist," I suggested. Specialists know a hundred times more about your skin than general practitioners do."

He kept the appointment with his family doctor and received horrifying news: his warts were contagious. His future wife would be at risk for catching the virus.

"Don't waste your time worrying about what that doctor said!" I told my friend. "I'm taking you to a specialist."

That second opinion was an entirely different diagnosis. The dermatologist gave a brief glance and said, "They're nothing. I'll take them off." He removed them within several minutes and said not to worry one little bit about them.

The growths never came back.

Keep Superiority in Balance

You'll find the same amazing difference between BI professionals with general knowledge and those who have specialties. To keep things in balance, however, we have to recognize the invaluable contribution of BI professionals who dedicate themselves to accumulating massive experience with the general issues of the field. Like a family physician, they are proficient in many things. They are the backbone of a team.

Specialists are helpless without the wisdom and support of the generalists, and generalists cannot achieve their best without specialists who dedicate themselves to narrow targets, such as setting up big-data scenarios for actuaries at insurance companies.

I know a technologist with amazing talent in a major area of BI. His ignorance of other areas is equally amazing. Without guidance and support from his team members -- who have the big-picture perspective and can tell where and how to integrate the special knowledge -- the specialist's superhuman talent is worthless. His manner of explaining himself is downright annoying and almost incomprehensible. Fortunately, his team can translate it into products that are exactly what customers need.

That specialist is like an orthopedic surgeon who received a telephone call from a nurse about an hour after repairing a slipped disk. "Doctor," said the nurse, "your patient is here in the recovery room with respiratory problems." The surgeon replied, "That sounds like pneumonia. I don't do pneumonia. Call a real doctor."

Fortunately for the patient and the surgeon, a general practitioner happened to be on hand. With impressive speed and confidence, she stabilized the patient and sent her home. That's what teamwork is about -- combining forces and becoming more than the sum of the parts.

On the other hand, I interpreted in Brazil for a heart specialist who was quite good at diagnosing general health issues. His specialization is more closely related to overall health than is the typical specialty in bone and muscle. Nevertheless, the cardiologist gave preference to the opinions of a nurse practitioner whose daily experience with general health was much wider and deeper. She, in turn, gave preference to the cardiologist's opinions about symptoms that he said were likely to be heart-related.

We can see the same relationship on a good BI team of four technologists who have strong general BI knowledge as well as complementary strengths. One member has learned outstanding social skills with users; another is quiet but expert in understanding user needs; another has acquired expertise in written communication and in persuading user management; and another is particularly adept at steering a project and choosing data architectures.

Because these technologists are comfortable with accommodating each other's specialties, they are a formidable team. They aren't free agents floating around in their own separate worlds, cheating the customers.

You Can Have More Than One Specialty

We all become impatient with our ambitions. We want to be experts sooner than time allows. If we want to become specialized, however, we need to learn as soon as possible to enjoy the journey. Otherwise, we look for shortcuts and skip essential steps of progress.

Specializing takes stamina and plenty of energy along the way. The journey is easiest and most pleasant when we're interested. When it comes to BI -- and I speak as a user who studies BI on a regular basis -- I recommend that you pick one area and dig into it until you either do or do not find that it holds enough interest to fuel your march toward specialization.

Scratching around on the surface for hours or even months is not enough. You have to dig down to discover the jewels. This is the nature of finding the source of deep interest and the insatiable appetite it can become.

Of course, personality has a lot to do with the excessive motivation some of us have. We would drive each other bananas if we were all wired the same way. Thank goodness we're not! Don't worry if you don't have overpowering motivation. It's not a requirement for becoming a great resource to your BI team and your enterprise.

Commitment to making a special contribution to the people you work with, to the enterprise that pays your salary, and to your in-house customers will bring more fulfillment to your work day than you could possibly find without it.

If you choose to develop two or more specialties, you simply need to remember that there are no shortcuts and that enthusiasm is no substitute for expertise. Just keep at it, day by day, gathering feedback from teammates, users, and any other sources, and use the feedback as a means of testing your ideas.

Some people are no fun to travel with. They drive 21 hours straight from south Texas to the upper Midwest with one goal -- to end the journey. They miss all the fun along the way and make their passengers miserable. By contrast, your journey to specialization should be sensibly paced and as enjoyable as possible for the people around you.

It's Not Special Unless It Helps Make the Team

If a specialization doesn't help make the team, there's nothing special about it. BI teams are weakened when members are narrow-minded, arrogant, or selfish, or when they feel threatened by each other's areas of expertise.

My twin and I recently witnessed a startling contrast between the IT departments of two online service providers when we accidentally violated a term in our agreement about how we would use their services. The "specialist" at one of the companies said, "We will not split hairs about what our terms mean."

His department embarrassed and shocked us by shutting down our online communications. His reward was to be able to say, "I showed them nobody's going to run over me. When I say I don't play games, I mean it!"

That man's specialization is nothing more than technical expertise because it has no sensitivity to business needs. The other company's specialist -- quite experienced with delivering business solutions -- responded to our needs. He remained friendly in ongoing dialogue and finally was convinced by our argument. Service was restored and we continued doing business without the other provider.

Part of the second specialist's reward is to be able to say, "We have policies, and we are open to discussing them. Supporting a customer's business is our first concern."

A true specialization on a BI team is not a trophy to polish and set in a private glass case for all to admire. It should be shared without immature restrictions because business intelligence is primarily about people and business. That's what makes it a niche in the IT world and why BI professionals are still so hard to find. Add a specialty to your BI credentials and you're even more rare -- and valuable.

Valuable in So Many Ways

Specializing is worth the effort. Besides the probable boost to your salary and your employability, it raises your quality of life by making you more useful and more interesting to others, which makes your work more interesting and meaningful to yourself.

Specialization that matters to a BI initiative is based on actual experience. It is most easily gained on a journey powered by interest in the subject matter. It is shared without silly exceptions, and it is preferably accompanied by a general knowledge of the niche called business intelligence.

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions for future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 18 years. You can contact the author at

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