Don’t chase unicorns: Build data analysts from within

IBM_TA_BDA_visualBy Colin Laurie and Lisa Carpenter

The notion that data is now business’s key natural resource has rapidly moved from idea, to catchy headline line, to simply a statement of fact. Data is driving change in the world of business, the public sector, whole societies and, most of all, our everyday lives. This data-driven revolution will likely have a more profound effect than the coal-powered industrial revolution of the 19th century and the oil-powered social revolutions of the 20th century. And, to date, we’ve only just scratched the surface.

Like other revolutions, the data revolution will need leaders. A lot has been written about the start-up entrepreneurs, technology visionaries, CFOs, CMOs and other C-suite leaders, who will all bring insight and leadership to this new revolution. However, what often gets overlooked is the real key to any industrial and social revolution – the revolutionaries on the ground, those who will carry the vision out in the office, at home, on the bus and everywhere else. And we are going to need lots of them.

The mad scramble for skills

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The challenge is: where will all these troops come from – both now and in the future? The short answer is mostly not straight out of college.

To be sure, there has been substantial and continued growth over the last few years in Data Science and Engineering programs at all levels of higher education. However, the fundamental problem is that demand for analytics skills is likely to continually outstrip the ability of educational establishments to ramp up and supply candidates.

In the recent IBM Business Tech Trends study, nearly 40 percent of organizations reported major to moderate gaps in analytics skills. The analyst shortage in the United States alone is estimated to be between 140,000 and 190,000 people by 2018.

Additionally, businesses (or at least recruiters) too often search for ideal “unicorn” candidates who can code, have strong analytics experience, business and communication skills, and are natural-born leaders. They are more likely to find a unicorn than such a candidate, especially one with a freshly minted degree in their hand. Even a partial combination of these skills in candidates is hard to find, particularly those “soft” but vital business intangibles of communications, management and relationship-building abilities, which often come through experience rather than formal education.

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To overcome what is likely a never-ending analytics skills shortage, organizations – whether major enterprises, the public sector or even the smallest of start-ups – will need to understand and execute against three core principles:

  1. Enable everyone to utilize data-driven insights. The utilization of analytics is a means to an end, not an end in its own right. Organizations need to unleash the potential of their existing expertise across the organization by adopting analytical tools that are easy to use and even easier to exploit.
  2. Default to build, not buy. Do you really need to hire skills from outside? The reality is that many business skills only come with hard-won experience. Many organizations should consider re-skilling as their default choice, rather than being held back by a lack of available external skill. As analytics tools and process become ever-more user friendly, the timeline for training and acclimation will come down.
  3. Reverse mentor. In the new world of analytics, good teamwork will be as important as it ever was in the old world of business, except now it will be even easier to execute. Generations will be able to learn from each other – to both of their benefit as well as to the overall organization. New technology-savvy hires will transfer insight on the best ways to utilize analytic tools; experienced staff will help new hires develop consulting and stakeholder management skills.

The businesses that will likely benefit most from analytics are those that tap existing potential inside their organizations – through strategies and programs that widely integrate analytics across all aspects of the business. To do this, they’ll hire just enough new skilled resources to spread the latest analytic tools and leading practices while simultaneously upgrading and creatively equipping the talent that already exists within their organizations.


The tech skills gap: Skate to where the puck is going to be

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