Why "soft skills" are so important in analytics....and how to learn them

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How many analytical projects have foundered due to lack of problem definition and other soft skills? As my SAS colleague Sascha Schubert writes, people and process matter, in addition to great technology. Great technology is a great first step, but having the right people following the right process is critically important. But how do you find the right people and what process should they follow? What skills should they have and how do you teach them?

Much as we lament the shortage of graduates from the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), it is arugably more difficult to find within that pool graduates who also have the right "soft skills." Another colleague, David Leonhardi of Boeing, describes soft skills as the "killer app" for analytics. He quotes Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind on the importance of story: "Despite all of the information and data, an effective argument is not enough. You need to have the ability to fashion a compelling narrative to convince and communicate."  SAS and the Analytics Section of INFORMS pose this very challenge in the 2013 Student Analytical Scholar Competition. Students are challenged to read a case study on Floor Mix Optimization at Lucky Duck Entertainment and then submit a Statement of Work (SOW) in response. The winner will be the one who constructs the most effective argument in a proposal that is also compelling and convincing.

Because while "hard math" is required to address the technical issues in this case study, successful applicants will also have to demonstrate their "soft skills." Convincing a client to hire you requires the technical skills to solve their problem, but it doesn't start there. The best process involves following the analytics life cycle, which begins by identifying and formulating the problem. This step alone is often a challenge, as problems are rarely delivered in a "ready to solve" format. It may be necessary to speak to several people from different backgrounds and parts of the organization with varying (even conflicting) priorities and perspectives. Getting agreement on problem formulation alone requires a combination of technical understanding, business acumen, and facilitation skills.

Writing a successful SOW requires understanding, defining, and proposing a solution to the problem, but it also requires conveying this information in a convincing way that can be understood by disparate stakeholders. Learning how to interact with those stakeholders is part of this competion, which offers students a chance to practice these skills. In a discussion board on the AllAnalytics.com site, starting today and running until February 19 at 5:00 p.m. eastern time, three of the main characters from the case study (from IT, operations, and sales) will be logging in to answer questions students may pose. Students may ask up to five questions each, and anyone is able to read the discussion and consider how you'd approach the problem yourself. After all, didn't most of us learn those skills via OJT - on the job training?

I've just started reading Daniel Pink's latest book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. He drew me in with his assertion that although statistically one in nine Americans work in sales, so do the other eight, because these days we are all called to convince others. Analytics professionals who thought they could leave sales to others will find that these soft skills of "selling," as Pink describes it, are required of them, too. The winning student whose SOW best "sells" their solution will have their expenses paid to attend the INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research, April 7-9 in San Antonio. At this conference INFORMS even offers a Soft Skills Workshop for those who wants to brush up on these skills. Tune in to the discussion to see how today's students are learning and remember your own journey down this path.

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Polly Mitchell-Guthrie

R&D Project and Program Management

Polly Mitchell-Guthrie leads the Advanced Analytics Customer Liaison Group in R&D, connecting with customers to improve SAS products. At SAS for 14 years, Polly has held a variety of roles in finance and alliances, and the Global Academic Program. She has a BA and MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Polly,
    Couldn't agree more that soft skills are crucially important for analytics professionals. In a 2012 study of over 300 analytics professionals done by Talent Analytics and the IIA an insatiable curiosity was overwhelmingly present. Curiosity is one key soft skill that analytics managers need to identify pre-hire in order to be predictive about the success of the analytic candidate.

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