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Ramp up your SMB's BI skills

The next frontier of BI skills is undoubtedly the SMB. Read this tip from expert Don Jones to start preparing now.

Maybe you're ready to start building and deploying a business intelligence (BI) project. Maybe you have one that someone else designed and you're ready to start expanding it. Maybe you simply need to know more about BI and want someone inside the organization to help inform you and other decision-makers. These are all good reasons for someone within your organization to start acquiring BI skills.

There are really two sides to the BI skill set: The consumer side, which represents people who will use and benefit from a BI system; and the technical side, which consists of those who design, implement and maintain a BI system. The consumer side is probably the easiest to begin with, because there are several self-service tools available that help develop a familiarity with BI capabilities and benefits. Start with the members of your organization who already understand your numbers the best: Financial leaders and sales executives, for instance. Send them to a class on Microsoft PowerPivot for Excel, and when they come home from class, have them get started on building their own analysis tables to answer various business questions. They may run into a wall on what PowerPivot can do, but that's kind of the idea: to get them accustomed to what such a tool can do and get them thinking about what a bigger system might be able to do. This is where you'll start developing a sense for the "business" side of business intelligence.

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"Skilling up" the technical side is a lot harder. The database administrator often finds it easiest to move into BI; software developers accustomed to writing database-backed applications are next-best. BI skills focus on database design and implementation above almost anything else and also draw heavily on software programming skills, such as developing complex aggregate and mathematical expressions.

At the technical level, BI bifurcates into two main disciplines: design and implementation. At the design level, experts need to know a bit about the specific BI platform on which their design will be implemented so that they can tweak the design to accommodate the specific features and quirks of a given platform, such as Microsoft SQL Server. At the implementation level, specific knowledge of the software platform is absolutely crucial -- this is where to start looking at vendor-specific training courses, certifications and other knowledge-building tools. Your organization will need a foundation in the specific platform -- say, SQL Server development and administration skills -- in order for higher-level skills -- such as SQL Server Analysis Services, Integration Services and Reporting Services -- to develop.

Work hard to keep the BI consumer and technical sides well-integrated. Send your top BI consumers to introductory technical classes on BI and begin including your technical experts in business-level discussions about BI. The more each side knows and understands about the other, the more successful your BI solution will eventually become.

Don't be shy about bringing in outside talent, too. Consultants can be tremendously useful in design and planning stages, provided that they can also act as mentors to the internal team members you plan to have support your BI solution in the long-term. In fact, look specifically for phrases like "coaching," "mentoring" and "handoff" when considering outside experts, since those phrases all imply the kind of knowledge transfer you're after.

Even if you've no plans to start building or expanding a BI system on your own, it never hurts to have some of the basic skills on staff. You'll be able to make better decisions regarding a BI system and better invest where it will make the most impact for your organization.

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