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Organizing Analysts: From High Priests to Teammates

Every once in a while, you encounter a breath of fresh air in the business intelligence field. Someone who approaches the field with a fresh set of eyes, a barrel full of common sense, and the courage to do things differently. We were fortunate at TDWI’s BI Executive Summit this August in San Diego to have several speakers who fit this mold.

One was Ken Rudin, general manager of analytics and social networking products, at Zynga, the online gaming company that produces Farmville and Mafia Wars, among others. Ken discussed how Zynga is “an analytics company masquerading as an online gaming company.”

Centralized High Priests

One of the many interesting things he addressed was how he reorganized his team from a centralized “high priest” model to a distributed “embedded” model. When he arrived at Zynga, studio heads or project managers would submit requests for analytical work to the corporate analytics team. According to Ken, this approach led business people to view analytics as external or separate from what they do, as something delivered by experts whose time needed to be scheduled and prioritized. In other words, they didn’t view analytics as integral to their jobs. It was someone else’s responsibility.

Another downside of the centralized model (although Ken didn’t mention this) is that analysts become less efficient. Since they are asked to analyze issues from a variety of departments, it takes them more time to get up to speed with germane business and technical issues. As a result, they can easily miss key issues or nuances that lead to below par results. Moreover, analysts serving in a “high priest” approach often feel like “short order cooks” who take requests in a reactive manner and don’t feel very engaged in the process.

Embedding Analysts

To improve the effectiveness of his analytical team, Rudin “gave away” his headcount to department heads. He said he had to go “hat in hand” and ask department heads to assume funding of his analysts. He thought the department heads would push back, but the opposite occurred: the department heads were thrilled to have analysts dedicated to their teams, and even agreed to fund more hires than Rudin proposed.

Embedding analysts in the departments helped cultivate a culture of analytics at Zynga. Each analyst became part of the team involved in designing the games. Their role was to suggest ways to test new new ideas and examine assumptions about what drives retention and longevity. By providing scientific proof of what works or doesn’t work, the embedded model created a perfect blend of “art and science” that has helped fuel Zynga’s extraordinary growth. “Art without science doesn’t work, says Rudin.

To maintain the cohesiveness of an analytical team that doesn’t report to him, Rudin holds 30 minute scrums where all analysts meet daily to share what they’ve learned and develop ideas about approaches, metrics, or tests that might apply across departments. Rudin also maintains two senior analysts who perform cross-departmental analyses.

Rudin had other gems in his presentation so stay tuned for analytical insights in this blog.

Posted on September 21, 2010


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