The Organizational Foundation for Excellence in Analytics

Ben Barstow, SVP, Strategic Planning, PRO Unlimited
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Ben Barstow, SVP, Strategic Planning, PRO Unlimited

This article examines the organizational attributes that foster and drive success in applying analytics to better serve customers, provide market differentiation, and fuel sustainable growth. Technology advancements and access to increasing volumes and variety of data mean the green fields of opportunity are ever growing.  There are a number of surveys and articles that indicate the vast majority of companies struggle to realize a competitive advantage and to gain meaningful value from analytics and big data. These findings are not entirely surprising, as success in this area is a long-term proposition, which rarely happens unless certain characteristics are present within an organization. The keys to tapping into the full power of analytics start with the right foundation. There are a couple of critical cornerstones for building an organization that ensures sustainable excellence in analytics. The first is creating the right culture, and the second is executing an effective talent acquisition strategy.

“The keys to tapping into the full power of analytics start with the right foundation.”

Key Elements of a Culture that Supports Analytics

Experienced leaders know what it’s like to make critical decisions with incomplete information and appreciate having fact-based data and analysis for their decisions. Managers are often forced to make decisions based on an incomplete picture of the world. A desire for a better understanding of their business, and the world in which it operates, is the catalyst for the development of strong analytics capabilities. Those companies that have successfully developed analytics as a core competency have created a culture which fosters the development of this strength. Two key elements of this culture are:

1) A scientific, fact-based approach to solving problems
2) Acting as a “Learning Organization”

Good management makes it a practice to make decisions which are rooted in a scientific approach, involving the assessment of as much data and facts as is practical to collect, compile, and analyze. This approach is paramount to supporting a culture that values analytics. Good leaders recognize the difference between drawing a conclusion from anecdotal evidence, and evidence which is supported by a statistically significant sample size. Understanding this difference is critical in assessing whether something is an exception, or has become a new rule or a significant trend. Building a business culture based on a scientific approach, means that managers can constantly assess the contextual relevance of new data against existing paradigms.

Analytical talent thrives in a learning environment that values the educational process and thought leadership. This is created when management sets an example and demonstrates intellectual curiosity by constantly learning about their customers, the competition, and the macro trends that shape their market. They pose important questions, creating new hypotheses in order to solve critical challenges and capitalize on opportunities. Re-assessing and refining key questions is an important part of the process. Often times the issue lies not with the answers provided, but with the question posed. It takes a level of intellectual nimbleness, to constantly refine and reassess the problem statement until you arrive at the right question. Science and business are full of examples where the right answer was found, but in order to recognize the value of the answer, the question needed to be re-defined. Examples include the discovery of penicillin, the creation of the microwave oven, and the invention of Teflon. These break-throughs could only happen in learning organizations.

Two Keys to Effective Talent acquisition

A recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review best sums up what it takes to succeed in driving value from analytics, and where most companies fail.

“It is hard work to understand what data a company has, to monitor the many processes necessary to make data sufficient and to improve a manager’s ability to use data.”

It takes support from executive sponsorship and leadership at the functional level to find the talent it takes to successfully complete this kind of hard work. There are two areas in the talent acquisition process where success is critical in building a strong analytics team.

1) Understanding how to screen for critical aptitudes
2) Making sure there is a right match for a win/win arrangement

We’ve been able to develop ways of screening for key aptitudes by examining the methods and thought processes of those who have been successful in creating effective analytics, and creating exercises that duplicate, on a smaller scale, some of the processes. These exercises take only ten to fifteen minutes, and once completed, the results and output created by the candidate, are reviewed and discussed. The whole process usually takes less than an hour, and the findings from this process are more valuable than multiple hours invested in multiple rounds of interviews. When we first started this process our main goal was to learn about a candidate’s analytical capabilities, but we also found that we were able to learn a lot more than their analytical skills. We learned how they approach their work, whether or not they are comfortable collaborating and discussing the problems they were given to solve, and overall how they handle the pressure of a deadline.

The other key thing to look for when hiring is whether or not there is a strong likelihood of creating a win/win arrangement between the company and the candidate. We are looking for candidates who have the desire and drive to make a difference, to create solutions, and who are motivated to constantly seek some way to drive value for the company and its clients. The right candidate has to have the aptitudes and desire to apply their skills in a way that provide business value.  The best candidates have good data instincts, as well as good business instincts. The latter attribute can be improved through training and experience on the job, but the candidate needs to bring with them the math and data instincts. One of our main goals during the interview process is to find out whether a candidate has a genuine interest in our business and in the success the company is looking to achieve. We could be interviewing the most brilliant data scientist in the world, but if that person is not looking to apply their brilliance in the context of creating value for our company and its clients, then it just isn’t going to work out.

There are other important aspects to building and sustaining strong analytics capabilities. Including the role of leadership in communicating how analytics is applied to improve the business, and effective strategies to ensure talent retention. There remains a huge opportunity to create value and drive solutions to clients, and it lies at the confluence of big data and strong analytics capabilities. As access to big data becomes more and more the norm, it is analytics capabilities that will become increasingly a key differentiator. PRO Unlimited has focused on being a leader in the discipline of analytics for more than a decade. We have pioneered the Vendor Management System (VMS) and Managed Service Provider(MSP) space in Contingent Workforce Management, and in doing so have built best-in-class analytics capabilities. It has been one of the keys to building a sustainable competitive advantage and has helped drive long-term double digit growth. 

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