It’s never just Analytics; it’s about People.

Introduction

When I was preparing for the Master of Science in Business Analytics program here at the University of California, Davis, I was not exactly sure what to expect from the practicum experience. I thought maybe it would be writing codes, building models, and all the “Analytics” stuff. Well, I was not entirely wrong. I have learned a great deal about dashboard building and model development. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that, it is never solely “Analytics”; it is about “People” and the interactions among them.

The practicum experience has contributed to my perspective on an analytics career in two aspects: teamwork and client engagement. Both of these require candidates to not only have strong coding skills but also solid people skills.

Teamwork

Ah, teamwork. Some people love it, while others avoid it like a plague. As for me, I certainly used to have mixed feelings about it, until my practicum experience shed some light on my perspectives.

The first lesson, people are fundamentally different. Instead of trying to make others be who they are not, use their strength to build a stronger team together. For instance, C in our team is strong in presentation skills and is our go-to presenter to the client. In the meantime, N is not exactly the most talkative person but is strong at coding and statistics. Therefore, we have decided him to be our technical guru. When you stop focusing on where others fall short and make them shine at what they do best, you will experience much less frustration and much more productivity.

The second lesson, bonding outside work may actually help work. I know, I know. I am not asking you to become confidants with your co-workers. However, some team-bonding activities may go a long way. Our team has been regularly hosting dinner parties together and connecting with each other. (Hot pot is a great option, by the way) There are even some discussions about creating our team “uniform”, based on our favorite show, Friends. The thing is, it is more than superficial fun. According to research by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Norton, group bonding activities enable employees to show better “organizational citizenship”, such as staying late at work to help a colleague.

Client Engagement

To be perfectly honest, it frightened me a bit when I started the practicum project. We are working with high ranks managers in the organization, and others who are experts in their specialized areas. How was I, a student, supposed to engage with them and have a meaningful project outcome? Luckily, as I move along the project, I have learned a thing or two along the way.

First and foremost, understand what your client what. Many people overlook this crucial part and dive right into the analytics. However, if you are heading in the wrong direction, no matter how fancy your model is, it is all futile. This can be deceivingly hard. As Kelsey Miller suggested in Harvard Business Review, one of the useful ways of understanding customers is by conducting interviews. Take our practicum experience, for example, we are building a dashboard for the patient experiencing homelessness population. There is a mountain of indicators and indexes in the medical files, and we need to select the most informative ones to put into the dashboard. Given the fact that none of our teammates has background knowledge in the medical field whatsoever, I had to constantly hold meetings with our clients to rely on their expertise. It was a steep learning curve, but it was well worth the effort. The fields we included in the dashboard were informative and helped the doctors understand the medical history of the patients quickly and effectively.

Secondly, expectation management is hard but vital. People in business or managerial roles sometimes live in a different reality than the one analysts live in. They may have exciting ideas that sound so simple and easy to do, but in reality, it will take a long time to source, clean, and analyze the data. In times like this, analysts should be the ones to stand up and paint an accurate picture from their perspective. It is never about contradiction or confrontation. Such clarity will help people within the organization to understand the potential workload and feasibility of their plans. In our project, patient experience data is highly sought by the doctors and they wanted it to be included in the dashboard. However, in practice, the data was not intact enough for the patient experiencing homelessness population, and the location where the data is stored is not the same as others. After discussion with our clients, where we presented all these obstacles, we decided to put off patient experience data and focus on others that are of higher importance. Analysts should bridge the gap between lofty business goals and sometimes unsatisfactory reality.

Conclusion

I have learned a lot from this valuable experience provided by our Master of Science in Business Analytics program, with fancy statistics and stunning visualizations among them. What unique about it is, it gives me a taste of what it is really like to be a business analyst. It shattered some of the imaginations I have had before and instills lessons that I would benefit from for years to come. People are at the heart of every business scenario, no matter how many numbers and graphs are involved. At the end of the day, it is always people who use the graphs and generate value. Therefore, to thrive in an analytics career, you will need to polish your people skills. Why not start with the teamwork and client engagement skills I mentioned today?

Have you ever experienced a benefit of possessing these skills, or a downside for the lack of them? Let me know in the comments!

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