Data sets, business intelligence and analytics are becoming big business. Companies are waking up to the tremendous insights hidden in their data, and the competitive and brand advantage that these insights can give them. In short, the business intelligence industry is booming. (For more on brand advantage, see Protecting Your Brand Value with Big Data.)
But it’s also getting dumbed down in the process, with data analytics chatbots, machine intelligence, self-service tools, and various other ways of democratizing and automating data work likewise enjoying significant growth. For the skilled scientists, analysts, developers and consultants among us who make a living in this burgeoning field, this trend can feel like a significant threat to job security.
I’m confident, however, that the demand for human resources that can handle data infrastructure, collection, analysis and business intelligence at an expert level will only get stronger. As long as you continue delivering deep insight and understanding that clearly shows your value, your career will do just fine.
Let’s take a look at what experts across the data analytics field are saying, learn about what these bots and similar solutions can and can’t do, and explore how you can maintain your job security.
Data Processing Automation and Its Impact on Jobs
Everywhere you look, automation is making big changes and driving efficiencies. Companies are making major investments in automating their processes and data collection. Autonomous vehicles and production lines are removing the need for the human element. Against this background, it’s easy to be anxious, and those of us who are honest with ourselves know that employees in certain job positions definitely do have reason to anxious.(To learn more about automation, see Automation: The Future of Data Science and Machine Learning?)
A recent BBC report identified taxi drivers, factory workers, journalists and even doctors as the professions with the highest risk of being replaced by automated solutions. Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades, although the actual number is likely to be lower than that.
But, for people with strong engineering, analysis, strategy and BI skills, there’s a silver lining. Among all this automation, there’s going to be a tremendous need for technical skills, the ability to deliver novel ideas, practical solutions and, critically, context for business intelligence.
Or, as the Obama Administration’s recent report on “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” puts it, “An AI-enabled world demands a data-literate citizenry that is able to read, use, interpret, and communicate about data, and participate in policy debates about matters affected by AI.” In the short term, the report notes, “the automation of tasks that could not be automated before ... will likely increase productivity and create wealth, but it may also affect particular types of jobs in different ways, reducing demand for certain skills that can be automated while increasing demand for other skills that are complementary to AI.”
That’s where skilled BI analysts, developers and the like come in. Business intelligence does not work in isolation. It’s the “intelligence” part of BI that’s the real reason your job won’t be in danger anytime soon. There are several good reasons for this.
Bots Still Can’t Handle Complexity or Apply Meaning
Martin Ford, an AI expert and writer of “Rise of the Robots,” has some dire predictions about automation stealing our jobs, but even he believes that skilled labor will remain in high demand throughout our lifetimes.
“It’s becoming evident that computers, machines, robots, and algorithms are going to be able to do most of the routine, repetitive types of jobs,” he recently told “Wired.” “That’s the essence of what machine learning is all about. What types of jobs are on some level fundamentally predictable?”
That’s at the heart of why BI experts will remain employed – simply because all of that automated data is only useful when it means something. Routine, mundane data leads to routine, mundane solutions. For businesses to make the big decisions that can impact the whole way they work, they need insight, and that insight necessarily comes from a human interpreter.
In other words, you’re the bridge between the data and the business. You add the “intelligence.”
Bots Don’t Understand What the Question Is
When it comes to business intelligence, decisions come from analysis, analysis comes from data, and data comes from asking the right questions. Bots don’t know what those questions are.
While they are exceptional at crunching the numbers and doing the analysis, they are simply automated programs, doing a specific thing, in a specific way. There’s no understanding of context, the bigger picture, business conditions, the market environment, or the ebb and flow of instinct, intuition and emotion.
As a BI expert, you’re ideally positioned to provide that context. You can gain a deep understanding of the business, provide alternative ideas and approaches and use your experience to highlight novel findings and insights. That requires thinking beyond the “process” of data analysis and BI and understanding how it connects to the business, sector, industry and market as a whole.
With this in mind, it’s arguably just as important to understand the areas that complement business intelligence as it is to understand the mechanics of BI itself.
The Chaos Created by Self-Service Analysis Tools
One of the perceived, bigger threats is that of the self-service business intelligence (SSBI) tool. After all, if you put the power in the hands of the users, why would anyone still need any experts?
When not set up or used properly, self-service BI tools have the potential to create a lot of chaos. The problem is, if you give everyone access to your data warehouse and data sets, provide them with a self-service reporting tool and say “go find,” you introduce an enormous amount of uncertainty.
“Making sense of data requires skills,” analytics thought leader Stephen Few recently wrote in a scathing rant against the ridiculous claims found in SSBI marketing material. “Anyone of reasonable intelligence who wishes can develop these skills, just as they develop all other skills, through study and deliberate practice.”
While it’s probably true that many software vendors exaggerate the extent to which their automated tools help line-of-business users arrive at data-driven insights on their own, the need for non-technical team members to interact with data for making strategic decisions is real – and it doesn’t necessarily take IT or analytics pros out of the picture.
“Today, businesses face a dual challenge as employees are required to perform non-routine tasks that involve accessing data they need for decision-making, yet want to do so without having to go to IT each time a new requirement or question arises,” writes Evan Castle, a product manager at BI software firm Sisense in a white paper titled “9 Questions to Determine if a BI Solution Is Truly Self-Service.”
“This has led to a rift between businesses’ need to respond quickly to work demands, and IT’s failure to deliver data in an actionable time frame. For this reason, organizations are asking: with growth in both complex work and data, how do more people independently explore business questions? A popular solution to this challenge is self-service BI.”
SSBI may make it easier for management to import their own data sets and map connections between sources, for example, but especially in larger organizations, there’s still major value in getting help with logic modeling, aggregation calls and other types of setup from BI and IT experts.
Non-technical employees simply don’t have the expertise, inclination, or time to drill down that deeply into business data – they just want to pull out meaningful insights. Instead, data analysis and BI needs to be tailored and targeted to its audience. That means having a good grasp of business cases, business analysis and understanding how the data is going to be used. It involves getting data to interact with other sources, cleansing it and seeing what it tells you – in other words, all the areas where BI experts excel.
Who Is Going to Build the Bots?
There’s one other big area we haven’t touched on yet. Who exactly is it that builds, implements, upgrades and maintains these automated and self-service tools? Until we reach the AI singularity, that’s going to stay firmly in the hands of BI developers, strategists and project managers. Bots are becoming more innovative all the time, with some even able to communicate business data insights through the internet of things.
One way to be indispensable is to build yourself into the ecosystem for BI bots. Become a specialist developer for BI solutions, understand the ins and outs of collecting and cleansing data inputs and outputs, learn how to interpret data from these bots into usable insights.
Beat the bots at their own game by becoming part of the infrastructure supporting them.
Become a BI Triple-Threat
If there’s one thing you can do to make yourself truly indispensable in the BI industry, it’s this: Don’t just be about BI. Instead, expand your skill set and experience beyond just the data. That’s about being a double- or triple-threat, having other, complementary skills that make you exponentially more valuable. For example:
- A data scientist who knows how to code
- A developer who understands BI strategy and implementation
- A consultant who can provide a complete, end-to-end BI solution for a business
- A BI reporting analyst who understands business process improvement
- A data warehouse expert who understands the financial implications of BI decisions
- A BI expert who can work with executives and managers of all levels to help them truly understand and act on data
It’s all about leveraging your skills and complimenting your BI knowledge with something else. Yes, it might require additional training or mentorship, but the experience and skills you gain immediately make you more valuable.
Yes, the BI game is changing, but as long as you’re prepared to grow, learn and adapt, there’s every reason to expect a bright future. Learn how to help c-suite execs and senior managers make decisions, and you’ll be the person they turn to.