RESEARCH & RESOURCES

6 Conditions for the Rise of Business Analysts

The lack of well-qualified business analysts dampens the value of data. A Stanford University professor has found keys to help.

We can talk about business intelligence all day without once mentioning business analysts, the people who make sense of data for stakeholders, so I was happy toward the end of the recent Teradata Annual Influencers Meeting when one presentation turned the conversation to analysts' skills and strategies.

Blake Johnson, a contributing professor at Stanford University's Department of Management Science and Engineering, spent 10 years helping consulting clients build teams of analysts. More recently, he led a day-long roundtable discussion at Stanford on "creating value with analytics and big data."

The bad news is what recruiters already know: It's hard to find well-qualified analysts -- but it's especially hard to find those with the skills Johnson believes they should have. Perhaps worse, the supply chain is crippled. He has found no program offering a complete curriculum. Even worse than that, many well-qualified analysts cannot win widespread appreciation within their organizations. The long term looks a lot better, I would say. Johnson's been identifying best practices and creating a program to help companies use them.

Based on his presentation and later conversations, I've boiled down his main insights.

1. The best analysts are skilled in three areas: First, they engage stakeholders and have an eye for business opportunity. Second, they inspire stakeholders' trust with consistently excellent analysis. Third, "big data" requires skill with data management and software engineering.

That's a high bar, and some organizations have had to compromise. Google, for example, has built teams with a 50-50 mix: roughly half are skilled at data management and the other half at business and analytics.

2. Each analyst's skills should be about 80 percent in data management and about 20 percent in business and analytics -- but Johnson expects that to change over the next five or 10 years as tools make data management easier. Eventually the mix of skills will be the opposite: 20 percent data management and 80 percent business.

3. Gaining a foothold within an organization is best done in small bites with an entrepreneurial approach. Forget trying for a "big bang," he says. Instead, find a need and fill it quickly, then move on to others. Identify and solve one business problem after another -- always making sure to keep your methods scalable.

4. Location of analysts' workspace matters. They should work in a cluster for critical mass, which encourages sharing of best practices and support. If they sit within business teams, their work becomes more visible.

5. It's an adjustment for everyone -- on the business side but especially on the IT side. It means fundamental changes in the way data is organized and managed, and accessed and used, with both new technologies and skill sets.

6. Many IT pros deny access to data based on obsolete knowledge. Johnson reports that many don't know about modern load-balancing and other technology that make such access safer.

As you might expect, Johnson's work isn't always welcome. "I get pushback from both sides. It's amazingly strong," he says. Both IT and business people swear "it's the other guy's fault" and that what he's advocating is "impossible."

You would think that both sides would sign up for the bargain the new middlemen seem to offer. IT would cede control and concentrate on what it does best, managing the back end. Meanwhile, business stakeholders would get insights from these newly empowered, eager specialists. Analysts would be newly ready to answer business questions, conjure up new questions, and offer strategic options.

Analysts would colonize what had been the no-man's-land between IT and business. Trouble is, the analysts may end up ruining the neighborhood for them. If the strategies Johnson suggests work, IT and business would find a new power growing alongside them. Analysts -- simply from the position they would find themselves in, not from any wish to rule the world -- would be indispensible, powerful, and well funded.

Just think, we might find ourselves before long talking all day long about analytics with one brief period toward the end for technology arcana.

Ted Cuzzillo is a journalist and industry analyst focused on analysts' tools and needs as well as the environments in which they work. You can contact him directly at analysts@datadoodle.com.

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