Analytics at Work: Utilizing Analysts

Babson College professor Tom Davenport admits that analytics is a “nerdy” topic, but it’s also one of the hottest in the IT community today. In the follow-up to 2007’s Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning, he and co-author Jeanne Harris, an executive research fellow at Accenture’s Institute for High Performance, teamed with research executive Robert Morison to produce Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results (Harvard Business Press, available now). In this excerpt, the authors explain how companies can best utilize various levels of workers who rely on analytics.

Analytical techniques and tools are constantly changing, and the skills demanded of analysts at all levels are perpetually being redefined. To respond to this constant flux–not to mention keep analysts engaged–analytical organizations must invest in updating their analysts’ skills, particularly those that accelerate strategic business benefits.

One approach is to train analysts internally. Analytical amateurs especially benefit from improving their skills in analytical opportunities, methods and tools. At Proctor & Gamble, for example, the central product supply analytics group offers a course called Analytics with Spreadsheets–often the preferred tool of analytical amateurs. The trucking firm Schneider National’s central analytics group offers the courses Introduction to Data Analysis and Statistical Process Control in Services.

Another avenue to increase analytical skills is by rotating developmental assignments. Analysts who routinely analyze the same data and look at the same business problems tend to fall into a rut. Rotational assignments keep them on their toes and help them bring a fresh perspective to different parts of the business. Analytical amateurs also learn well when they have the opportunity to work alongside different pros and semipros on analytics projects. These assignments can be part of a formal job rotation program; when managed well, they can turn their departments into hotbeds of valuable analytical activity. For example, GE Money’s offshore analytics centers in Shanghai and Bangalore loan their staff for temporary assignments in business operations through a formal job rotation program. This has aided retention (in very competitive markets) and improved employee engagement by offering analysts new learning opportunities, task variety and a sense that they are making meaningful contributions to the business. The local businesses see the benefits, too, and demand for these analysts is growing.

Deploying Analysts

Matching a person’s skills and aspirations with the jobs the business needs is critical; however, it’s no simple trick to find people who can not only deliver the goods today but also develop the skills to deliver different goods tomorrow. Most analytical amateur work and some semipro work is predictable and routine, so if people demonstrate the skills and the company has established performance measures, then matching talent to work is relatively easy. Analytical pros, like Ph.D. statisticians, for example, are another story. Highly educated pros, with rare combinations of knowledge and experience, are in scarce supply. So put your best analysts where they’ll do the most good. Make sure that the pros are focused on the company’s biggest problems and be prepared to move them around as needed.

Deploying analysts appropriately is a win/win. Analytical people have skills that are in high demand, so organizations should recognize analysts as a special segment of high-value workers whose preferences and motivators are distinct from those of the average employee. Organizations must also connect analysts with one another, especially when they are few or dispersed; creating communities reduces ineffective “pockets of analytics” and facilitates learning.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press.  Excerpted from Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results by Thomas Davenport, Jeanne Harris and Robert Morison. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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