There's a data explosion going on and perhaps the strangest result is that business intelligence analysts need to become more artistic.
Recently my friend Ben Harden directed my attention to a post from Steve Bennett of Oz Analytics on the future of BI. One challenge to analysts that Mr. Bennett cited was the unprecedented explosion in data quantity to "an almost inconceivable 35 trillion gigabytes" by 2020. Part of the solution, according to the post, is "actionable insight", as illustrated by Harry Beck when he created the now-iconic map of the London underground network from the previous rather spaghetti-ish version. What Mr. Beck did was to distinguish significant from insignificant detail for the intended audience and present that detail in a clear and appealing way.
So if artistic skills like Mr. Beck's are important in working with the unprecedented complexity of today's huge datasets and systems, should hiring managers scour university art departments for their BI analytical talent? I don't think so just yet. Here are the skills I would seek:
1. Understanding of Subject Area and Tools
A data analyst can't know every row of a complex dataset, but should have a deep grounding in the subject matter. A painter knows his or her colors and different types of paint, and a composer understands the different instrumental colors and textures available in an orchestra. Likewise, the data analyst studying worldwide clothing sales trends knows the product and for each market worldwide understands the consumers, prevailing economic trends, competition, and fashions. He or she also is expert in the analytical tool at hand, be it Cognos, Business Objects, SAS, SPSS, or Excel.
2. Ability to Hypothesize
Getting answers from large datasets requires the ability to ask the right questions. The successful BI analyst doesn't flail around in the data looking for trends but instead applies the scientific method, proposing a hypothesis then devising an experiment to test the hypothesis, then proposing and testing another hypothesis, and so on. The analyst's skill in finding the right questions to ask depends on his or her knowledge and experience in the field, imagination, and sheer desire to understand more. Perhaps the key quality here is curiosity driven by strong interest in the field – the clothing sales analyst should really be into fashion!
3. Presentation Skills
After combining fundamental knowledge with curiosity and scientific method to gain insights from a huge dataset the analyst must then communicate those insights to others. Perhaps you work with someone who has great PowerPoint skills, or can graph anything in Excel. The BI analyst should be an individual who can put together compelling visualizations of data like these and this one (click the play button for best results). We had a candidate recently who included an impressive portfolio of work samples in addition to his resume, perhaps that should be required for experienced BI analysts.
The bottom line: seek BI analysts with knowledge and driving curiosity about the field, BI tool experience, and killer presentation skills.