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Get That Job: Business Intelligence Specialist

Updated on March 6, 2018
JaldertMaat profile image

Jaldert is a Capability Development blogger at Smörgåsjobb and works as Head of Capability Development for Fujitsu. His views are his own.



Business Intelligence Specialists perform the collection and analysis of data on markets, customers and competitors, used to enhance a business' reach and success.

But how do you become one?

What is Business Intelligence?

The core of Business Intelligence lies in the collection and analysis of data. Like ripples in a pond caused by a stone's throw, any action by a company, its competitors or customers cause reactions which can be measured and explained.

Knowing how the market responds to the actions of a company is very valuable, because it will allow you to focus on improvements in your business model that give you the greatest benefit for the investment.

For example, you can do analysis on the market to find out that customers prefer cloud-based digital solutions over on-premise data centers. This was concluded by analysts before an actual rise in requests for digital solutions in the market, by analyzing articles and discussion topics on professional sites and networking sites. People were discussing the possibilities of specific digital solutions, and a great increase in specific topics draws attention.
Further analyzing their discussions might lead to a conclusion such as "An increase of 70% in discussions involving around cloud-based solutions, of which 40% represented specific discussions on the need for easy provisioning and scaling".

The company who receives this information might deploy solutions specializing in user provisioning and ease of use, while using marketing to reach these same people discussing it. This increases the chance of success of being included in future requests on these topics, and might even put them ahead of the competition, if they did not perform this same research.

Key Characteristics of Business Intelligence Specialists

Business Intelligence (BI) combines commercial insight with scientific analysis. It's primarily a research-based profession, so skill at mathematics and handling databases is mandatory.

A Business Intelligence Specialist needs to be able to draw accurate conclusions on the actions and decisions made by customers and competitors in the market based on actual data - this is called "Descriptive Analysis" and implies being able to explain current movements based on past decisions.

The second stage of analysis is known as "Predictive Analysis" and moves into taking the current movements and decisions, and predicting what customers and competitors will do in the (near) future. This requires insight in the market but also a sense of commerce and marketing.

Finally, there is "Prescriptive Analysis" which means to take the data and using to advise on actions to take to achieve a desired outcome. This is the part where Business Intelligence combines art and science, because while the basis is lain with data and analysis, this adds an element of conjecture.

This also leads to the last two primary skills for BI Specialists: being able to analyze the current capabilities of the company (including any derived from potential changes in process or structure) in taking action on this knowledge, and being able to convince senior management of the return on any investments made based on this information.

Statistical Analysis
Business Principles
Predictive Insight
Business Administration
Change Consultancy
Relevance measured as perceived percentage of time spent on tasks; complexity measured by required degrees or level of skill required for average outcomes.

Education Options

When you are planning to start a career in Business Intelligence, your primary options in education lie in Economics, Mathematics or Business Administration.


A study in economics will provide a great degree of knowledge on economic models and the movements of goods and finances. While on average highly theoretical, it is highly applicable to markets and the actions taken by actors in the business theater. Another benefit of this degree is that it applies equally to financial politics, opening up careers in governments and nonprofit organizations. However, macro-economic models do not always add up in reality, and as a study it requires continuous updating to remain relevant.


This degree goes in-depth on the engine behind BI, namely the ability to calculate, model and analyze data in numerical format. The advantage to this degree is that it is widely applicable, and very supportive of potential career changes in the future. As a rule, it is also future-proof in that it forms the foundation of many other sciences. The downsides of mathematics as a choice in degrees are its distance from its practical application in business and its broad scope compared to what is needed for practicing BI.

Business Administration

Business Administration focuses on the business as the cornerstone of economic action, and its relationships to customers, suppliers and competitors. This makes Business Administration a top choice for any career in business, including Business Intelligence. It also opens up career options laterally of BI in any company, including being able to start and run a company from scratch. However, to become successful in Business Intelligence may require additional theoretical knowledge, necessitating a course in Statistical Mathematics to achieve.

Internal Promotion

Another way to be involved in Business Intelligence is through internal promotion in a company you already work for. In many cases, BI is the province of Marketing (where it concerns reaching customers and branding) where the statistical analysis is outsourced to another company.

Often lacking the direct mathematical skill and access to data required, companies can buy access to online databases maintained by data-processing companies such as Gartner. These companies make available raw data as well as predefined sets of descriptive analysis designed to be used for Business Intelligence. These can be used as input for predictive and prescriptive analyses later on.

In such a role, less emphasis will be made on your skills at math, but all the more on being able to analyze the data and draw conclusions from it that can be used to create business decisions. If you have strong commercial insights and consultative ability, but are weaker at math, such an internal promotion path might work well for you.


Quantitative Research

The cornerstone of Business Intelligence is called Quantitative Research, and it is focused on primarily numerical data. The skill involved is to group and connect the data in such a way that it shows causal relationships.

For a simple example, analyzing data on units sold (a number) to customers (a number) per industry. The results could show that unit X is most popular with Transportation showing that focusing on producing unit X and marketing it to Transportation customers would create a larger total revenue. But, if you add the production costs, you might find out that unit Y has a larger margin, meaning that it contributes more to profit if its market share would grow.

You could then invest time to find out if Transportation or Services as a market will be growing in the future, and how much of the market you already have control of. If Transportation is a growth sector of which you have a limited part, your potential profits there are much greater focusing on product X, than if it is a stable sector where you already have a big market share, where product Y would be a better choice to focus on.

Quantitative research Examples

Market Share
Stable, Grow or Shrink?
Focus Product
Product Y
Product X
Product Y
Product X
Product X
Product Y
Where product X has higher revenue but lower margin, and product Y has lower revenue but larger margin. You would focus on Revenue for market dominance, but on margin for market vulnerability

Qualitative Research

Another form of research is Qualitative Research, where focus lies less on numbers but more on researching causal relations through tags and categories applied to statements and choices of people.

This is the kind of research that focuses on surveys, polls and opinion interviews, and then analyzes the answers given to make statements about the subjects asked about.

A very relevant example of qualitative research for Business Intelligence is the focus group or mystery shopper, where (potential) customers are asked about their opinions or experiences with certain products or services.

In these kinds of analysis, causal relations are directly applied by the source. If a person dislikes your product, they are likely to give you the reason. If a person promotes your service, they will often explain why. That is valuable information that can be directly applied to your business.

This does not mean that numbers are never involved here - after all you can place all these statements and opinions in a database, tag them (positive, negative, neutral) and then perform quantitative analysis on that data. This leads to statements like "43% of customers endorse the service, 24% are neutral and 33% are dismissive of the service".


Part Art, Part Science

Becoming a Business Intelligence Specialist requires combining the ability to use statistical analysis with presenting the findings and your recommendations in a compelling way. This also needs to support the business, so you need to be able to make business cases and calculate returns on investment (ROI).

Being creative is a great plus, since being able to present your material in an attractive fashion improves chances of your work being read and considered credible. While the knowledge and insights you provide are key, you are tailoring to a line of business where time is money and the "management summary" is what decisions are made on.

© 2018 Jaldert Maat


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