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Wayne Eckerson

Welcome to Wayne's World, my blog that illuminates the latest thinking about how to deliver insights from business data and celebrates out-of-the-box thinkers and doers in the business intelligence (BI), performance management and data warehousing (DW) fields. Tune in here if you want to keep abreast of the latest trends, techniques, and technologies in this dynamic industry.

About the author >

Wayne has been a thought leader in the business intelligence field since the early 1990s. He has conducted numerous research studies and is a noted speaker, blogger, and consultant. He is the author of two widely read books: Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business (2005, 2010) and The Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders (2012).

Wayne is founder and principal consultant at Eckerson Group,a research and consulting company focused on business intelligence, analytics and big data.

The previous two articles in this series covered the organizational and technical factors required to succeed with advanced analytics. But as with most things in life, the hardest part is getting started. This final article shows how to kickstart an analytics practice and rev it into high gear.

The problem with selling an analytics practice is that most business executives who would support and fund the initiative haven't heard of the term. Some will think it's another IT boondoggle in the making and will politely deny or put off your request. You're caught in the chicken-or-egg riddle: it's hard to sell the value of analytics until you've shown tangible results. But you can't deliver tangible results until an executive buys into the program.

Of course, you may be fortunate to have enlightened executives who intuitively understand the value of analytics and are coming to you to build a practice. That's a nice fairy tale. Even with enlightened executives, you still need to prove the value of the technology and, more importantly, your ability to harness it. Even in a best-case scenario, you get one chance to prove yourself.

So, here are ten steps you can take to jumpstart an analytics practice, whether you are working at the grassroots level or working at the behest of a eager senior executive.

1. Find an Analyst. This seems too obvious to state, but it's hard to do in practice. Good analysts are hard to come by. They combine a unique knowledge of business process, data, and analytical tools. As people, they are critical thinkers who are inquisitive, doggedly persistent, and passionate about what they do. Many analysts have M.B.A. degrees or trained as social scientists, statisticians, or Six Sigma practitioners. Occasionally, you'll be able to elevate a precocious data analyst or BI report developer into the role.

2. Find an Executive. Good sponsors are almost as rare as good analysts. A good sponsor is someone who is willing to test long-held assumptions using data. For instance, event companies mail their brochures 12 weeks before every conference. Why? No one knows; it's the way it's always been done. But maybe they could get a bigger lift from their marketing investments if they mailed the brochures 11 or 13 weeks out, or shifted some of their marketing spend from direct mail to email and social media channels. A good sponsor is willing to test such assumptions.

3. Focus Your Efforts. If you've piqued an executive's interest, then explain what resources you need, if any, to conduct a test. But don't ask for much, because you don't need much to get going. Ideally, you should be able to make do with people and tools you have inhouse. A good analyst can work miracles with Excel and SQL and there are many open source data mining packages on the market today as well as low cost statistical add-ins to Excel and BI tools. Select a project that is interesting enough to be valuable to the company, but small enough to minimize risk.

4. Talk Profits. It's very important to remember that your business sponsor won't trust your computer model. They will go with their gut instinct rather than rely on a mathematical model to make a major decision. They will only trust the model if it shows either tangible lift (i.e., more revenues or profits), or it validates their own experience and knowledge. For example, the head of marketing for an online retailer will trust a market basket model if he realizes that the model has detected purchasing habits of corporate procurement officers who buy office items for new hires.

5. Act on Results. There is no point creating analytical models if the business doesn't act on them. There are many ways to make models actionable. You can present the results to executives whose go-to-market strategies might be shaped by the findings. Or you can embed the models in a weekly churn report distributed to sales people that indicates which customers are likely to attrite in the near future. (See figure 1.) Or you can embed models in operational applications so they are triggered by new events (e.g., a customer transaction) and automatically spit out recommendations (e.g., cross-sell offers.)

Figure 1. An Actionable Report
Part V - Actionable Report.jpg

6. Make it Useful. The models not only should be actionable, they should be proactive. The worst thing you can do is tell a salesperson something they already know. For instance, if the model says, "This customer is likely to churn because they haven't purchased anything in 90 days", a salesperson is likely to say, "Duh, tell me something I don't already know." A better model would be one that detects patterns not immediately obvious to the salesperson. For example, "This customer makes frequent purchases but their overall monthly expenditures have dropped ten percent since the beginning of the year."

7. Consolidate Data. Too often, analysts play the role of IT manager by accessing, moving, and transforming data before they begin analyze it. Although the DW team will never be able to identify and consolidate all the data that analysts might need, it can always do a better job understanding their requirements and making the right data available at the right level of granularity. This might require purchasing demographic data and creating specialized wide, flat tables preferred by modelers. It might also mean supporting specialized analytical functions inside the database that lets the modelers profile, prepare, and model data.

8. Unlock Your Data. Unfortunately, most IT managers don't provide analysts ready access to corporate data for fear that their SQL queries will grind an operational system or data warehouse to a halt. To balance access and performance, IT managers should create an analytical sandbox that enables modelers to upload their own data and mix it with corporate data in the warehouse. These sandboxes can be virtual table partitions inside the data warehouse or dedicated analytical machines that contain a replica of corporate data or an entirely new data set. In either case, the modelers get free and open access to data and IT managers get to worry less about resource contention.

9. Govern Your Data. Because analysts are so versatile with data, they often get pulled in multiple directions. The lowest value-added activity they perform is creating ad hoc queries for business colleagues. This type of work is better left to super users in each department. But to prevent Super Users from generating thousands of duplicate or conflicting reports, the BI team needs to establish a report governance committee that evaluates requests for new reports, maps them to an existing inventory, and decides which ones to build or roll into existing report structures. Ideally, the report governance committee is comprised of Super Users who are already creating most of the reports users use.

10. Centralize Analysts. It's imperative that analysts feel part of a team and not isolated in some departmental silo. An Analytics Center of Excellence can help build camaraderie among analysts, cross train them in different disciplines and business processes, and mentor new analysts. A director of analytics needs to prioritize analytics projects, cultivate an analytics mindset in the corporation, and maintain a close alliance with the data warehousing team. In fact, it's best if the director of analytics also has responsibility for the data warehouse. Ideally, 80% to 90% of analysts are embedded in the departments where they work side by side with business users and the rest reside at corporate headquarters where they focus on cross-departmental initiatives.

Summary

Although some of the steps defined above are clearly for novices, even analytics teams that are more advanced still struggle with many of the items. To succeed with analytics ultimately requires a receptive culture, top-notch people (i.e., analysts), comprehensive and clean data, and the proper tools. Success will not come quickly but takes a sustained effort. But the payoff, when it comes, is usually substantial.


Posted November 21, 2011 7:34 AM
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