The Right Way To Democratize Analytics Across An Enterprise

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Today’s data savvy business leaders are not content to limit analytics insights to only the most senior leaders. They strive to make analytics available to an entire organization, often referring to this as the “democratization of analytics.”   

On its surface, this sounds promising — giving more leaders and managers the ability to do more on their own. However, “democratizing analytics” has become code for “giving everybody access to a data dashboard or a data visualization tool.” This is like giving everyone in an organization a frying pan and proclaiming a community of chefs. 

Data snapshots and visualizations are great, when used appropriately. The problem is that data are not helpful unless they are purposefully collected to address a particular problem. For example, if a marketing manager is given a data dashboard showing greater customer engagement on the company’s app than on the website, then what?  

Depending on how the data were collected, this might be great evidence that the app drives engagement and the manager should invest in pushing the app more broadly. On the other hand, the data might merely represent a self-selection bias. That is, already-engaged customers are the ones who choose to use the app. Maybe the app doesn’t cause engagement; rather, engagement causes app usage. If so, then pushing the app won’t move the needle on engagement. 

Although understanding the data collection process and context is necessary to make decisions effectively, these details are almost never included in dashboards and other quick-hitting visualizations. Plus, very few users of “democratized” analytics would know how to interpret and use the information, even if provided to them.  

How can a business leader ensure that analytics is democratized the right way? The answer is to first disseminate the right knowledge via the right training, and only then disseminate tools.  

One company, 1000 opportunities 

Recently, I led an analytics training program for more than 4,500 managers of a well-known Fortune 500 company. At the end of the program, we divided managers into teams of four or five. Each group was required to: 1) articulate an important business problem that could be solved with analytics and 2) generate the beginnings of an analytics plan to help them find a good solution.  

It was tremendously powerful: these 1,000 small groups identified 1,000 business opportunities and 1,000 ways that analytics could help the organization. Plus, because these ideas were generated by the teams themselves, and not dictated by senior leaders, the participants were deeply vested in making sure that the problems were solved.  

The Key to Democratizing Analytics

The single most important ingredient to democratizing analytics is to develop managers’ ability to identify and scope key business problems that can be solved with data. This is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and improved upon with the right kind of training and support. 

There’s no need to ask managers to create the analytics insights — this is a technical endeavor that should be undertaken by analytics specialists. But neither are managers merely “analytics consumers,” which suggests a far too passive role. There’s a critically important middle ground: savvy businesspeople who can say, “I have X problem, and I need Y insights to get me to Z solution.”   

Investing in the right training is not easy for many organizations. Today’s visually appealing data tools are so elegant and easy to use, the assumption is that packaging information in the “right way” must surely yield good decisions. This mindset is a sure-fire way to waste resources and mistakenly believe this is what it means to be data-driven.   

Why It Works 

Democratizing analytics the right way, with the right kind of training, has immediate and long-term tangible benefits. 

  1. Equipping managers with the ability to articulate problems with analytics solutions gets them thinking — on a daily or weekly basis — about how to anticipate problems before they occur. While managers today are expected to solve problems, with the right training, they’ll also be able to anticipate and prevent many problems from occurring in the first place. In other words, reacting to a downed system or missed opportunity or lost customer is good, but prevention is even better.  
  2. Managers will feel greater ownership of their business problems and will be more motivated to find good solutions.  
  3. Managers need to be rewarded, not penalized, for surfacing hard-to-solve problems. Too many bosses tell too many managers “don’t bring me a problem without a solution.” This leads to minimal progress through a cycle of identification and reward for only the lowest hanging fruit. When managers are trained and rewarded to think about substantive problems with analytics solutions, the result is a culture of curiosity, proactivity, and progress.  

Business leaders need to take a step back and ask themselves, “Do the people closest to the day-to-day business decisions in our organization know how to articulate and scope problems that can be solved with analytics?” If not, then organizations are missing one of the most important ingredients of analytics success. 

Teams need to be trained on the right things. Although the result might not be 1,000 new solutions by next month, creating a data-savvy engaged team of proactive problem-solving managers is worth doing right.



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