Your analytics talent pool is not made up of misanthropes

Tips for interacting with analytics colleagues

To quote Pride and Prejudice, businesses have for many years “labored under the misapprehension” that their analytics talent was made up of misanthropes with neither the will nor the ability to communicate or work with others on strategic or creative business problems. These employees were meant to be kept in the basement out of sight, fed bad pizza, and pumped for spreadsheets to be interpreted in the sunny offices aboveground.

This perception is changing in industry as the big data phenomenon has elevated data science to a C-level priority. Suddenly folks once stereotyped by characters like Milton in Office Space are now “sexy.” The truth is there have always been well-rounded, articulate, friendly analytics professionals (they may just like Battlestar more than you), and now that analytics is an essential business function, personalities of all types are being attracted to practice the discipline.

Yet, despite this evolution both in talent and perception, many employees, both peers and managers, still treat their analytics counterparts in ways that erode effective analytics practice within an organization. Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you interact with your analytics colleagues in the future:

1) Analytics is not a one-way conversation. If you’re going to ask a  data scientist to study demand drivers or task your analysts to pull some aggregate data from the Hadoop cluster, try not to just “take the data and run.” Analysts are humans, not a “layer” on top of your database so that MBAs can extract data. A data scientist is not a high-priced mechanical turk.

Remember to communicate why you need the data you need. And later, when that data has come to some use, you should check back in with the analyst to let them know that their efforts did not go unwasted. I’ve seen organizations suffer from an analytics “throttling” effect where analysts will cease or slow down their work for a particular manager or peer, because they think the manager never does anything with the data. Maybe the manager doesn’t, or maybe the manager just doesn’t check back in to let the analyst know the outcome of their work.

Data scientists don’t like data for its own sake. They like it for what it can do. So keep them in the loop.

2) Give credit where credit is due. Let’s say your data scientist performs a study showing how “user-agent of the customer visiting the website is predictive of conversion”  or “we can target customers with product recommendations based on the purchases of their nearest neighbors.” You then take this study and turn it into profit. The data scientist should receive some of the merit for having contributed to this work. It seems like common sense, but many businesses often think that crediting an analyst is like crediting the database they used. You wouldn’t give credit to Hadoop for your great strategic idea, so why would you give it to this curmudgeonly analyst? Data doesn’t become insight on its own. Someone had to craft those insights out of a pile of ugly transactional records, so give that person a pat on the back.

3) Allow analytics professionals to speak. Just because you may not have a knack for math, does not mean that your analyst isn’t adept at communicating. Allowing an analyst to present their own work gives them a sense of ownership and belonging within the organization. Some analysts may not want to communicate. That’s fine. But you’d be surprised how many would love to be part of the conversation if only they were given the chance. If they did the work, they might be able to better communicate the subtleties firsthand than an MBA could secondhand.

4) Don’t bring in your analytics talent too late. Often products and strategies are developed and launched by executives, managers, and marketers, and thrown in the wild long before someone thinks to ask the analyst, “Hey, how might we use data to make this product better? And how might we use the transactional data generated by this product to add value?” The earlier these questions get posed in the development cycle, the more impact analytics will have on the product in the long run.

Sure, you can’t do data science until you have data, but a slight variation in how you sell, market, or design a product may mean the difference between useable data later on and worthless data. Design, marketing, operations — there are many important considerations at the beginning of any product’s life. But don’t let that stop you from bringing the data scientist into the high-level strategic meetings. They might be able to shape the product to make it more profitable through predictive modeling, forecasting, or optimization. You don’t necessarily know what’s analytically possible. But they do.

5) Allow your scientists to get creative. When people think of creativity, they often think of the arts. But cognitively, there’s a lot of similarity between fine art and abstract algebra. Analytics professionals need instructions, projects, and goals just like all other employees, but that doesn’t mean they need to be told exactly what to do and how to do it 100% of the time.

Now that the world at large has realized products can be made from data or better sold through the judicious use of data, it’s in your best interest to give your analytics professionals some flexibility to see what they can dream up. Ask them to think about what problems lying about the business could be solved through analytics. Maybe it’s phone support prioritization, maybe it’s optimizing your supply chain or using predictive modeling in recruiting, maybe it’s revenue optimization through pricing — allow the analyst to think creatively about problems that seem outside their purview. It’ll keep them interested and engaged in the business, rather than feeling marginalized and stuck-in-the-basement.  A happy, engaged data scientist is a productive data scientist. And given how hard it is to recruit these professionals (they seem more like unicorns sometimes), hanging on to the talent you have is essential.

At MailChimp.com, we’ve seen the value firsthand of bringing data scientists into the strategic and creative conversation. If you’d like to learn more about how MailChimp as a small business took on big data, join me at Strata in Santa Clara for my talk “Monkeys and Math: How MailChimp catches Bad Guys.”

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  • http://twitter.com/greenbacker Charlie Greenbacker

    “Just because you may not have a knack for math, does not mean that your analyst isn’t adept at communicating.”

    Yes! Though some “soft skills” people feel threatened by folks who can both do the math AND communicate effectively.

    • http://twitter.com/John4man John Foreman

      Right. Long ago I used to work for a consulting firm where I kept pushing to be part of the bus. dev. process, present my own work, etc. The response I got back from the client-facing consultants was, “Well, if we let you talk to clients, then what would we do?” That’s a tough question to answer.

      • http://twitter.com/ghalib Ghalib Suleiman

        Haha, this is great.

  • http://twitter.com/Logan_gramatr Logan Ice

    Great article. As a data analyst, it’s a blessing to be at a place where I’m encouraged to share my findings with both the team and clients – it’s refreshing to have that responsibility and to know that they have that much trust in me.

  • Credible24

    Absolutely. This whole “ah yes but you’re not a business person” patronising nonesense has no justification. Similar self serving viewpoints include “I’m not a detail person” (i.e. I haven’t got the stamina / skills / drive ) “I’m a business person”. This often from lacklustre, underloaded middle management.