CIOs Overcome Shortage of Business Analytics Talent

Business intelligence, analytics and big data are all the rage. But those enterprise endeavors require staffers with solid business knowledge, statistical expertise and presentation skills--skills many IT pros don't have. Here's what CIOs are doing to get them.

Just as historical reports alone aren't sufficient for making corporate decisions—executives want business intelligence to identify current and future trends—IT staffers need to know more about BI than how to run a data warehouse or build a dashboard. That puts CIOs in a bind, according to industry experts, who have raised alarms about a data analytics skills deficit.

For example, a report released last spring by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2018, the United States could lack 140,000 to 190,000 workers with deep analytical skills and another 1.5 million managers and analysts who know how to use analysis of large data sets to make effective decisions.

"We see our BI leader as being the catalyst to drive our organization away from pure historical reporting to true inferential analysis," says Greg Meyers, vice president of global IT at Biogen Idec, a $5 billion biotech company. "This is both a technical and change management challenge."

Yet despite continued high U.S. unemployment rates, there's a BI talent shortage says Boris Evelson, analyst at Forrester Research. "Every single client I talk to tells me they are struggling with finding and retaining BI talent."

To fill the gap, CIOs are competing for workers with strong math skills, proficiency working with massive databases and with emerging database technology as well as with expertise in search, data integration, and other areas such as business knowledge, Evelson says. In fact, he says, business knowledge, such as understanding processes, customers and products, "is at least equally as important as the tech skills."

IT leaders are thinking about how to get the needed analytics talent now as well as developing the pipeline for technologists with the right skills for the future.

Business Analytics Education Gap

Foote Partners, a research and advisory firm that tracks IT skills demand and pay levels, pins the gloomy outlook for BI talent on a low supply of young workers in roles such as architects, modelers, integrators, analysts and developers. The finding is preliminary, says David Foote, the company's co-founder, CEO and chief research officer, but he suggests that one problem is that many colleges and universities haven't yet risen to the challenge of teaching the skills that are potentially needed for analytics jobs.

He cites the need for government and industry partnerships with academia, such as the U.S. Cybersecurity Challenge, that use online competitions and incentives to attract students to possible careers in information security. "The same sort of thing needs to happen for analytics/statistics/BI," Foote says. "Fill the pipeline with students eager to enter the field and focus on careers."

Unfortunately, academic credentials, like a class or even a related degree, go only so far. Qualified workers require several years of experience to understand how to deal with "real world" BI challenges. "One can learn the technical skills needed for BI in a six-month class; that's not a big deal," Evelson says. "The big deal is accumulating knowledge of best practices and lessons learned from successful and failed implementations."

Wanted: Real World Analytics Experience

So IT executives are scouring the country to find people with the data analytics skills they need now. Douglas Menefee is CIO at Schumacher Group, a privately held company that provides emergency room management services to hospitals nationwide. He wants to hire database extract, transform and load (ETL) developers, as well as presentation analysts "who know how to tell a story with data."

"Both need to have very strong critical thinking skills and need to be able to draw on asking the hard questions," Menefee says. The ETL developers need "strong math and logic matching skills," he says, while the presentation developers "need to be able to use right and left brain thinking"-in other words, be both logical and creative. "We want them to use creativity to tell a graphical story."

Because projects change very quickly depending on the "fire of the day," Menefee says, Schumacher looks for individuals who also are experienced with agile development and can adapt to change easily.

The hiring cycle takes three to six months, sometimes preventing the company from moving as quickly as it would like on projects, Menefee says. If necessary, consultants fill the gap, such as when the company was building a BI center of excellence and needed architecture and design expertise. Hitachi Consulting "worked with us a couple of years until we were [internally] staffed," Menefee says.

Adding to Menefee's challenge is the company's Lafayette, La., location. It's hard to convince people who aren't already familiar with Lafayette to relocate. He concentrates on hiring locals, as well as people who want to move back to Louisiana. Schumacher Group has also taken advantage of job recruitment, hiring and training services provided through the Louisiana state government's FastStart workforce program.

Like Menafee, Meyers at Biogen Idec wants to hire staff with data warehousing, ETL and reporting experience. That's relatively easy, he says. But he also wants these workers who know how to elicit details from users about the metrics they use to make decisions and the unanswered questions they have that data can help them to find. Identifying them is more challenging. He thinks he can recruit them from other companies, where they've done similar work.

Planning for the Future

Meyers says he can find people to staff current projects. "These skill sets might have been fine for the past several years, but to truly use BI as a competitive advantage you have to focus decision support on predicting the future—not simply reporting the past," he says. Similarly, Menefee says, "Our next generation of skills will be blended heavily on the business side with statistical modeling and quantitative analysis." Menafee says. However, he adds, "these skills probably won't live within IT."

He is making an effort to develop a compatible IT workforce in part by working with the University of Louisiana, which graduates 70 students annually with computer science master's degrees. He serves on a course curriculum committee at the university's Lafayette campus, which gives "feedback on gaps between what is being taught and what our business needs are," he says. He's also working with the school to develop an internship program.

Pacific Coast Companies provides business and IT services to a dozen subsidiaries that supply building products and related services. CIO Mike O'Dell needs workers with statistical and analytical skills as well as knowledge of economics "and the wisdom to understand causal relationships in the data," he says. "The types of projects we are working on are focused on making the people we have more effective, from the executive to the salesman to the shop floor."

The need for business skills, in fact, is driving O'Dell's staffing and recruitment strategy. He taps business people internally and teaches them technology. He also recruits local college students with technology skills and teaches them about the business.

"Understanding the business is the more complex side of the equation, so the best way to develop those skills is to expose technology-oriented people to the business and put them in the field and let them learn," O'Dell says.

Bob Violino is a freelance writer based in New York.

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