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BI best practices ensure that a great app gets used

User training is often one of the most overlooked aspects of deploying business intelligence (BI) software. Yet an ongoing education program coupled with hands-on instruction is essential for wringing full value out of BI deployments.

You've clearly defined the business problem. The data warehouse architecture and data model have been painstakingly mapped out and the suite of business intelligence (BI) tools has been carefully evaluated and matched to the organization's core requirements and ultimate business goals. 

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Yet even the most meticulous BI deployment plan often overlooks a well-designed and continuously enforced strategy for BI training and end-user education.

"It's not so much that it's overlooked but that it's given less attention," noted Cindi Howson, founder of BIScorecard, an independent site for business intelligence research and BI software reviews. According to Howson, if business intelligence training doesn't get its fair share of focus, "the ramifications are that you build a beautiful BI application that is not used or not used correctly."

BI training efforts growing

Companies are beginning to learn from those kinds of mistakes and are making BI training more of a priority. In Howson's "2009 Successful BI Survey" of 325 companies, 24% of the respondents rated user training as "essential" to their BI deployment plans.

Even so, the discipline ranked eighth in importance when it comes to best practices related to BI deployment success, far below alignment with business goals, executive-level support, and IT and business partnerships, yet above the establishment of a BI Competency Center or BI steering committee, which landed lower on the priority scale.

The first step in any BI training initiative is to educate the user community -- from highly trained business analysts to casual executive users -- on what business intelligence is, why it's important to the company, and how individuals can leverage the technology as part of their everyday work. "Understanding the why and wherefore behind business intelligence is more important than teaching someone how to log into a particular tool," said Claudia Imhoff, president and founder of Intelligent Solutions, a data warehouse consultancy.

Once the benefits of BI have been delineated and demonstrated to the organization as a whole, the BI team should segment the users based on profiles and use case, and they should tailor education and training efforts accordingly. High-level managers may just need access to a turnkey dashboard or interactive report, and so a 10-minute phone call or Webex training will suffice. On the other hand, power users and subject matter experts may require traditional classroom training with regular follow-up sessions.

BI training sessions should be monthly

Making the BI training program continuous, not just a one-off session or two, is another recommended strategy. Howson suggests monthly "lunch and learns" where users get together physically or virtually to share ideas, tips, tricks and best practices, as well as monthly or quarterly meetings where higher-level strategies and future directions can be established.

At these sessions, the BI team should also be regularly evaluating the user-defined reports for future modifications, as well as monitoring usage patterns, which may point to other areas where users need additional handholding.

Taking an in-depth look at the data is another important element of any training program. Different functional areas of the business may look at different data elements and business terms in a slightly different context. "Data training gets short shrift because the impression is everyone knows what we mean by that," said Mark Madsen, president of data consultancy Third Nature. "That's simply not true. You have to look at your audience and customize the training."

"Super users" aid IT in BI training

Although IT has a key role in developing the training materials, training should not be the sole responsibility of IT. The BI team needs to enlist the help of so-called "super users" in the business ranks to help educate the masses and to take the lead in identifying requirements.

Super users -- who typically make themselves known as the most vociferous about report requirements, or who have taken it on themselves to create Microsoft Access or Excel reports prior to the BI deployment -- can be a big help in the training process by serving as the first line of support.

Yet these same users can also become a stumbling block if they feel some of their power and value is usurped as the BI project opens up what was once "their proprietary data" to the group at large. "You have to be politically aware of their position," Madsen said. "Give them privileged access, and overcome their objections one by one."

About the author: Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing techniques and manufacturing technology.

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