Kathleen L D Maley, Senior Director, Consumer and Digital Analytics Analytics, Keybank
Businesses have been using data to find a competitive edge, for more than 100 years. Time and motion studies by Frederick Winslow Taylor and others in the late 19th century used data analysis to increase efficiency and transform how work was done in factories, hospitals, department stores, and many other human activities.
Computers and other technology have accelerated the use of data analysis so that companies of a certain size and complexity will either have to hire analysts or risk losing ground to competitors. Appreciation of data analysis has even penetrated the once-hidebound culture of professional baseball. These days, every major league team has an analytics department devoted to finding and, in some cases, developing the best players.
Your company might have an analytics department or is thinking of starting one. But how do you build an analytics department that fulfills its promise of better business? How do you extract the most value from your analytics team? It starts with upgrading your team with the right blend of skills, but it also includes building productive relationships with business partners and creating visibility for your work at senior levels of management.
Build Your Dream Team
It goes without saying that an analyst must have solid to stellar technical skills. They need to be comfortable using programming languages such as Python and SQL and be trained in statistics and other data-science concepts. Many companies make the mistake of focusing on technical skills as the main requirement when hiring an analyst. That mindset will severely limit the potential of their team. Instead, they should view technical skills as required but not what determines who gets the job. They want good listeners who can engage business partners in conversation, think critically and nimbly, and solve problems.
Too many analysts have adequate technical skills but end up being order takers. Their mindset tends toward, “What data do you need?” That denies business partners the full value of their expertise. Non-analysts cannot be expected to know their business and know which analytical approaches will best serve them. They need to focus on their business and identifying pressing problems.
A more helpful approach for analysts is to ask, “What business problem are you trying to solve?” A careful listener will be able to ask questions that help her or him better understand the business. In a truly collaborative partnership, both business leaders and analysts learn more about problems besetting a business and refine problems in a way that analysis can help solve.
An analyst should be able to think critically and steer a business leader who is not well-versed in what analytics can do, down more fruitful paths than originally envisioned by the business leader. He or she should be able to provide solid reasons for whatever recommendation is made and be nimble-minded enough to change course if initial data suggests a better way.
Not only must analysts be able to solve problems, but they should also strive to form close relationships with their business partners, think strategically about their partner’s work, and find ways other analysts can help. Often, more than one analyst will work on solving a partner’s problems, and each analyst will serve multiple business partners, so the work of an analytics team should be organized not around team members but around the needs of each business partner.
An analyst should be able to think critically and steer a business leader who is not well-versed in what analytics can do, down more fruitful paths than originally envisioned by the business leader
In order to think strategically, good analysts must take the time to learn about the business and its priorities. They must immerse themselves in the day-to-day operations, staff meetings, and strategy sessions. They must be core members of teams that are responsible for implementing initiatives. They must ask questions and meet their business partners as equals at the table, and they have to be willing to go with their partners to senior leadership not only for the good news but also for the bad. Success or failure is as much their responsibility as their partners, and they win or lose together. A tight business relationship with your partner will potentially produce better results and a greater appreciation for your analytical work.
Loop in Senior Leaders
A good analytics team leader must also recognize that business partners can focus too narrowly on their part of the business and lose sight of the company’s larger goals. That’s why it’s important to give regular reports to your partner’s boss and possibly other senior-level managers. Not only does that give senior leaders an awareness of the value you are providing, more importantly, it gives them a chance to ask questions and steer the discussion back to the company’s larger goals. That keeps your work more focused and will keep both you and your business partner from spending too much time working on data that isn’t a high priority for senior management.
Those reports shouldn’t focus just on what your team did but on how it’s furthering business goals and identifying opportunities. The business partner can then talk about any plans for realizing those opportunities. Even if the analytics team doesn’t work directly for a senior leader, it is working on behalf of that leader’s goals and objectives, and he or she needs to see and hear the value the team is adding in order to appreciate it.
Extracting value from an analytics team often requires a break from traditional thinking by team members and business partners. Business partners must be willing to share and discuss their business with the analytics team, and team members must be willing to think strategically and solve problems. If that happens, partners are more likely to get more relevant analysis and make good use of it. That should be the ultimate goal of every analytics team. Because even the most beautifully crafted analysis is useless unless it is implemented and improves the bottom line.