Software companies that develop business intelligence (BI) applications advertise that their products are easy to use. The graphical user interface enables users to request, manipulate and format data in a manner that is consistent with other software with which they are already familiar. Since most BI applications have a look and feel similar to other commonly acceptable software such as a spreadsheet or word processing applications and are easy to use, why provide user training?

Case Study: No User Training

In all of my experiences configuring, implementing and deploying BI applications, we have only encountered one situation where the client decided not to provide user training just prior to deploying the BI application to their users. While this is an isolated case, sharing the experience will be beneficial to others who may not understand or appreciate the need for user training.

During the development of a data warehouse for one of our clients, we began planning for the deployment of the warehouse to approximately 600 users. A BI application was configured and was the primary application for the users to access the data. During the course of planning for the training of these users, the client wanted to reduce the budget of the project and elected to not provide users with any training on the BI application. The rationale for their decision was that their users were very sophisticated, technologically savvy computers users, and the BI application was easy to use.

While we did not agree with the client’s decision and explained our position on user training, they requested that we initially produce an eight-page reference guide that eventually was expanded to 65 pages. The reference guide was e- mailed at the same time the BI application was rolled out to all users. During the deployment, very few calls came in from users requesting assistance or complaining about the BI application. Was it a successful implementation and deployment?

A few days after the deployment, the data warehouse support group reported that the usage and activity of data warehouse was minimal. After following up with several users, the client realized that no one was using the BI application. Most of the users did not have the time or the desire to read the reference guide that was e-mailed to them. Most of them were planning on attending a training class prior to using the BI application. As the user complaints for training emerged, the client quickly switched their position and decided to provide user training. While the users eventually received the training that was originally planned, the deployment of the data warehouse and BI application did not receive the fanfare that the client had anticipated.

Standard BI Training

Each software company that develops BI applications offers training courses on their products. The goal of this standard BI training is to demonstrate the features and functionality of the application to the students through lecture and lab exercises. Users may attend one or a series of classes in progressive order to become knowledgeable and skilled in the use of the BI application. In most cases, the standard training classes are accessing demonstration data that may not be representative of the type of data or context the students will use when they return to their organization. Most companies that purchase a BI application will have users attend the standard training that is provided by the BI company because it is readily available and requires very little preparation or planning.

There is a leap of faith that each student, after completing the standard training, will be able to use the BI application in a custom environment to create ad hoc queries and reports for decision-making purposes. To determine whether you should be concerned or not, ask yourself, "Is your BI configured environment simple and contains no business rules or definitions that your users must learn?" If the answer is yes, then standard BI training is probably the most appropriate selection.

Standard BI and Custom Training

The combination of standard BI and custom training is frequently selected by organizations that want users to understand not only the features and functionality of the BI application, but also the data that is available to them in the environment configured specifically to the organization. A typical program for this type of training would begin with one to three days of the standard BI training followed by a half to a full day of custom training. The number of days of training is dependent on the learning objectives, the goals of the client and the user requirements. The follow-on custom training provides users with an understanding of the structure of the BI configured environment, the associated business rules and definitions as well as the data that is available to them. The emphasis of the custom training is to put the learning experience into the context of the data that the users will be accessing for decision-making purposes. In addition, the custom training reinforces the learning experience of the standard training by providing students with the ability to understand the benefits of the BI application in their environment through lab exercises using their own data. This training approach is more encompassing than standard training alone but requires additional preparation and planning.

Custom Training

Developing custom training materials is time-consuming and requires thorough planning. However, it can be very cost-effective for organizations that have more than 100 users who need to be trained on a BI application, and it can be the most beneficial learning experience for students. We have several clients that have chosen this training approach and believe that it can be more effective and streamlined compared to other training approaches for their users. Each training course is developed using detailed learning objectives. The course focuses on the features and functionality of the BI application most important for that client’s particular environment. Lab exercises are incorporated in the context that the students are already familiar within that organization.

Summary

While each organization has its objectives for providing user training, Figure 1 is a high level summary of learning objectives and training approaches.

Learning Objective Standard Standard & Custom Custom
How to use the BI application. X X X
Understanding the organization’s business rules and data definitions.   X X
How to apply the BI application to the organization’s configured environment.   X X

Figure 1: Learning objectives and training approaches.

With the learning objectives identified in Figure 1, Figure 2 identifies training approaches and the cost effectiveness given the number of users an organization needs to train.

Cost Effect Training Standard Standard & Custom Custom
< 10 users X    
>10 and < 100 users X X
> 100 users     X

Figure 2: Training approaches and the cost effectiveness.

Having worked with several BI applications, I would agree that they are easy to use once you understand what they can do and how to use them. Training on a BI application is essential if the goal is to quickly understand how to use the software. Additional considerations such as having your users apply their understanding in a manner that will allow them to gather, format and analyze the data they need for decision-making purposes may need to be addressed.