Time for an Analytics Show and Tell - InformationWeek

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Data Management // Big Data Analytics
Commentary
2/2/2017
11:00 AM
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Time for an Analytics Show and Tell

The business-analytics disconnect remains a hurdle for adoption of data-driven decision making. Maybe it's time for the analytics team to hit the road and show employees what data can do for them.

Over the past three-plus years that I have been writing about data analytics in the enterprise, no challenge for analytics professionals has come up more often than that of getting business unit managers and executives to buy into data concepts.

I think the only complaint that matches the business-analytics disconnect might be the beef about data quality. However, it seems that analytics professionals have a better grasp on the quality issue, perhaps because it's often in their own realm and they can improve quality by brute force and some extra hours.

Changing the mindsets of experienced people on a different section of the org chart is a very different beast. It helps to have a data advocate in the business unit or backing from the CEO. However, establishing trust in data when a potential partner is a thousand miles away and busy with their own problems remains a challenge. How do you get someone with decades of experience to let data into their decision process, even if it only supplements that experience?

Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel
Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel

One possibility is to take a cue from those who strive to make innovation a core business principle. Perhaps it's no coincidence that analytics and innovation seem to be tightly linked anyway.

An article in Harvard Business Review highlights how some companies -- Zipcar in particular -- get employees to innovate. They don't simply ask them or tell them to innovate. They show them how. The approaches include bringing employees together to do things like smash a computer and naming innovative new products after the employees who suggested them.

The article made me wonder what an analytics team could do to demonstrate the power of analytics to the unsuspecting or recalcitrant.

The HR department might get upset if employees were told to beat up the "no data now, no data ever" line manager. However, we do hear about the occasional case where a spiffy data visualization has persuaded a stubborn manager that analytics can help solve problems. How do you make that technique scale?

Are there ways to use visualization techniques to make front line workers and even C-level executives more data aware? As it is, the typical organization probably doesn't discuss data with the masses of employees beyond the annual memo about protecting data.

I would love to see analytics teams go the extra mile to get the average employee to be excited about ways to use data in their job. At this point in time all of those people know that businesses and government are collecting data about them. Most of them see only the dark side of that data collection -- big data spying.

Going the extra mile could mean a data road show where analytics pros show employees what types of data are available to their departments. In real life, even if department heads know what data is on hand, word of that trickles down to the ranks only on a piecemeal basis, and often without perspective. Boss: "We have some new customer data available. Let us know if you have any questions." That type of leadership won't move any mountains.

Suppose a representative from the analytics team sat down with two dozen employees, a different group each week, and explained how other companies might be using their data. Then, they could explain how their own company uses -- and doesn't abuse -- its own customer data. Or, they could highlight what types of operational or industry data is available.

While you have their undivided attention you have an opportunity to solicit their own suggestions for new data sources and new ways that the company could use data. I suspect that some good ideas would come out of that discussion.

Think back to your school days. What was more interesting, the teacher droning on about sentence structure or show-and-tell day when some kid brought in their pet frog? Maybe it's time to bring show and tell into the world of analytics.

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