Training the Next Generation of BI Specialists


Business intelligence is changing. I’ve been in this field since its infancy and have watched it evolve beyond my wildest dreams. When I started, a single BI consultant could master it all: extracting data, building dashboards, and generating reports for users. It was almost magical, and it changed the way companies harness and use information.

BI has grown by leaps and bounds over the last ten years. Powerful new technologies have expanded the scope of the services BI consultants can offer. Increasingly, we are becoming specialists focused on specific services like ETL, building cubes, and designing dashboards. One of my favorite topics is advising organizations or departments about vision, mission, strategic planning, and KPIs. 

The quality, quantity, and complexity of the data we process have matured, but so have the tools at our disposal. Speech and image recognition, machine learning, and robotics provide new categories of information. Machine learning and natural language processing have improved its extraction. The intersection of BI, AI, and data science is ushering in a new data era.

In a few short years, BI and analytics have progressed from hindsight—the realm of traditional reporting—to insight and foresight. Previously, we were able to answer what happened and why it happened. Now, we can explore what will happen and how to make it happen.

BI takes you from hindsight to insight and foresight.

BI consultants are harnessing the power of data science and artificial intelligence to optimize business systems processes and product delivery. Predictive, prescriptive, and semantic analytics help businesses forecast probabilities. They also help businesses understand context and meaning.

Big Data in the Real World

Before I joined my previous role at a data intelligence company, I worked in the public sector and I saw the data revolution in action. At one of my positions, we switched from reporting on the last day of the month to reporting on the first day.

With this simple change, we went from looking backward to looking forward. We started measuring targets and grew smarter along the way. As a result, we were able to save €72,000 a year in a single department. Can you imagine expanding predictive analytics to every government department in an entire city or region?

On top of working as a BI consultant, I have also taught the subject for the last ten years at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. This was not my first teaching gig. My teaching truly began during my studies at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam. Near the end of my education, the university saw I was capable of giving lessons, so they asked me to train  students to work with QlikView. During my final year, I was actually a teacher and a student at the same time. 

Later, I worked as a scuba diving instructor for decades. I loved teaching and telling the stories behind the techniques of diving. Teaching people how to dive was a hands-on experience. I had to start with the theory, but the real learning happened in the water. This is also how I approach BI. I don't like teaching from textbooks. I'm a storyteller by heart, and I like to give my students real-world examples of how business intelligence works. Authentic business cases breathe life into classroom learning.

When it comes to teaching BI, hands-on experience beats textbooks.

There's no better way to teach. At the data intelligence company, I work with companies from around the world. We have clients in Europe, the United States, and China. This is a 24/7 business, and it is changing every day. Five- and ten-year strategic plans are becoming a thing of the past. Big Data, predictive analytics, and BI empower businesses to change their plans on the fly. Strategic planning is becoming proactive, not reactive.

At school, my students are with me for roughly six months. Their semester comprises two 10-week blocks. I start by teaching them the concept of BI. Then, they learn how to formulate a vision, a mission, and a strategy. After that, we move onto measuring KPIs.

At the conclusion of this introduction, my students audit the organizations they work for. How mature are their employers when it comes to BI? Are their corporate values and practices aligned with what the BI data is showing?

I teach my students the language of BI and I train them to become data literate. I also want them to understand the value of data and speak the language of data. After all, if you don’t analyze your data, or use it, it’s useless. If you cannot generate useful insights that help your organization grow, there’s no point in collecting data.

Teaching BI with the Leading Industry Tool

One of the best ways to prepare my students for the real world is to train them in the tools they'll use on the job. That's why I use Qlik Sense in the classroom. The first week of every semester, I invite all my students to join the Qlik Academic Program. They get a free subscription to Qlik's full suite of software, as well as customer support, and access to online resources like interactive business cases and instructional material.

My students can augment what they learn in my class with the online courses offered by Qlik Continuous Classroom. It's a way of getting them up to speed even faster.

I've used Qlik in a professional capacity for over a decade. I started with QlikView in 2007. In the last three years, I've switched to Qlik Sense, which has matured into a robust platform in a very short time. From the beginning, Qlik impressed me with the speed of its updates and upgrades, and also with the pace in which we could build dashboards and reports. The company takes BI very seriously and is quick to integrate the latest developments into its platform.

I spent years working with governmental organizations. People took forever to compile reports. Eight months or a year after they started, they would release a document that was already out of date. You can't work that way in a 24/7 business environment and even now big bang scenarios are definitely not here to stay. As I say to my students: If you build a report, and building that report takes more than a year, are the things that you have built still in place in the current situation?

I use Qlik in the classroom because it is the best BI tool I've found. It is state of the art and easy to use. It gets out of the way and lets my students learn the craft of business intelligence.

I start every semester with a Qlik demo. I've built a healthcare scenario that explores various activities and results. We look at the healthcare journey and explore ways to reduce turnover and wait times in order to maximize patient outcomes. I chose this dramatic case study to show them the power of analytics. If they can save people's lives, imagine the impact they can have on the companies they work for.

I also play a bit of a trick on them, and only tell them I'm using Qlik after I show them the demo. It's a way of building excitement. What's this amazing new tool I'm using to introduce them to BI? Why, it’s the same tool they'll be using during the second part of the semester. 

From BI Theory to Practice

My students spend the first ten weeks learning the basics of BI and how to use Qlik Sense. In the second half of the semester, they work with another dataset I've created. And really, the class is full of excitement when they find out how easy it is to bring multiple datasets together and make fantastic dashboards and reports.  

This second data set tells the story of a local milkshake bar that wants to expand into a national chain. It sells fresh-made, fruity milkshakes, and offers a concept that is unique in the Netherlands. In this role-playing exercise, I serve as the owner of the business. My students have to present me with dashboards that provide insight into its operations.

How does the weather affect my sales? Am I using the right marketing channels to promote my business? How many stores can I open nationwide and at which pace I should open the stores? My students work with this data during my lectures. I teach them the theory, and then I ask them to apply it in Qlik. 

Of course, We’ve done the ETL for them. Extracting and cleaning data is way too complicated for beginners. I want them to focus on building the best dashboards they can, from a business analyst perspective.  

At the end of the semester, I have all my students deliver a final presentation to me and guest lecturers and we grade them together. We also give them feedback, ask them to explain the processes that went into building their dashboards, and recommend better ways to view the data.

For example, we might ask a student to show us a KPI from a different angle; explain why they chose as specific graph; or detail how they merged temperature data with the sales data set.

Training the Next Generation of BI Specialists

This hands-on approach to teaching truly works. Roughly 50% of my students end up working in BI. I also recruit the best and brightest amongst them. In fact, 5 of the 15 BI consultants at the data intelligence company are graduates of my course.

To properly prepare students, give them the BI tools they’ll use in the real world. @Qlik

I'm very proud of my work as a teacher, but my students also humble me. They are the future of BI. Their talent, skill, and knowledge will pave the way for new developments in the business world.

I'm happy to play a part in their training and introduce them to Qlik. In the end, it is their hard work and dedication that will shape this industry. I hold the door open for them. They walk through on their own.