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IBM looks to the classroom to boost business intelligence software adoption

IBM hopes a new course on business intelligence and analytics at Fordham University will help prepare students for the workforce and cultivate new customers.

Different vendors take different tacks when it comes to expanding the use of their business intelligence (BI) software throughout the enterprise, a concept often called pervasive BI.

Microsoft is banking on its large installed base and the prevalence of Excel to fuel adoption of its upcoming BI and data warehouse releases. SAP has pinned its hopes on the SaaS delivery model to minimize deployment barriers.

IBM's approach, in contrast, centers on education, not just technology. Big Blue is targeting so-called casual or business users of BI and analytics software before they even get their first job offers with a new academic course at Fordham University.

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Starting this spring, both graduate and undergraduate students at Fordham's School of Business will have the option to take a class in BI, data analytics and data warehousing that will utilize IBM's Cognos and other data management software for hands-on training, according to the vendor. Students will learn skills around building effective reports, scorecards and dashboards, and how to analyze data from OLAP and relational databases to spot developing trends.

In addition to teaching the ins and outs of IBM's software, the course will attempt to show students how to apply analytics and trend analysis to real-world business problems that they're likely to face once in the workforce, in fields from advertising and marketing to energy and healthcare.

"We want to unleash the power of analytics to business users," said Deepak Advani, IBM's vice president of predictive analytics. IBM and Fordham therefore decided to offer the new course as a business- rather than IT-focused class. "We want to train leaders on how to use analytics to their competitive advantage," he said.

Advani said such training is necessary to ensure that the number of non-IT workers with BI and analytic skills needed keeps up with the incredible growth in data volumes. In a recent IBM Global CIO Study, 83% of respondents identified business analytics -- which IBM defines as "the ability to see patterns in vast amounts of data and extract actionable insights" -- as a top priority and an important criterion for evaluating future hires.

Of course, IBM also hopes to turn students into potential customers after graduation. The more comfortable students become with IBM's software in college, the more likely they are to purchase it or at least push for its use on the job. Though he would not reveal specifics, Advani said IBM plans to initiate similar courses at other colleges and universities.

"We need to start working with academia so analytics is one of the core competencies [students] graduate with," he said.

IBM has staked a large part of its future on BI and analytics. By its own figures, the company has invested more than $12 billion over the past four years in analytics technologies and services. It has opened six new analytic consulting centers worldwide just this year, swelling its services ranks to nearly 4,000 consultants. And it has made a number of high-profile analytics-related acquisitions, including its purchase of Cognos in 2008 and its near-completed acquisition of data mining specialist SPSS.

The addition of technology from SPSS will add much needed text and predictive analytics capabilities to IBM's software stack, Advani said. He said the Fordham BI course will cover how to mine text and other unstructured data from blogs, surveys and other sources to help marketing executives, for example, predict which mix of advertising styles will yield the greatest return.

Big Blue is also drinking its own Kool-Aid, having recently launched an internal analytics cloud called Blue Insight. The new internal cloud aims to bring together more than 100 different data sources so frontline IBM workers in sales and other departments will have access to fast analytic capabilities. IBM is also offering the internal cloud service to customers as yet another way to spread the use of its BI and analytics software enterprise-wide.

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