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Analytics Magazine

Analyze This!: Survey seeks to make sense of analytics world

January/February 2013

By Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

My wife and I recently hosted our annual holiday party, in which a large and boisterous crowd of friends and family members descended upon our house for the evening. One part of this annual ritual is dropping off flyers at nearby houses. The flyers serve both as an invitation to join in the festivities and as a warning to: (a) expect a lot of unfamiliar cars to appear, and (b) anticipate a lot of noise coming out of our house that night.

This year, a neighbor we had never met before arrived at our house on the night of our party (“thank you for the invitation”) and introduced himself to us (“I’m Bill – I live a few houses up the street”). It turns out that Bill is 65 years old and has lived his entire life in his house on our (that is, his) street.

“I took piano lessons in this house as a boy,” he explained, “but it has been a long time since I have been inside.” And for the next hour, as we listened in awe, Bill took us on a historical tour of our own house.

“This was originally Posey’s house,” he began. We were dumbfounded to discover that apparently the original owner of our house was George A. Posey [1], the chief engineer for the tube connecting Oakland, Calif. (where we live) with the neighboring island-city of Alameda, only the second underwater tunnel ever built in the United States.

Later on, Bill told us, the house was owned by a tool and die maker of some local renown, whose machine shop was on the second floor of the detached garage (this is now my home office, the very room in which I now sit writing this column). As we walked through the house, he pointed out where additions had been made, where moldings had been replaced, and where walls had been knocked down. When he left, we had a much better sense of the place in which we live.

We Need You … to Take a Survey

As it happens, I am also trying to get a better sense of the professional world that I live in, and I need you to help fill out the picture. Under the umbrella of Accenture’s Institute for High Performance, I am partnering with Jeanne Harris (co-author of “Competing on Analytics” and “Analytics at Work”) on a detailed study to examine the world of analytics today.

To date, we have done several one-on-one interviews with analytics professionals from several different vertical industries. What has perhaps been most surprising about these interviews is the sheer variety of things that people in the field of analytics are concerned about, including such diverse topics as choosing hardware platforms for data and analysis, selecting software tools, cleaning data, integrating data from multiple sources, setting up smart organizational structures to support analytics, properly prioritizing projects, collaborating effectively with the IT department, impressing business customers with insightful results, and dealing with the challenges of employee retention amidst a perceived shortage of analytic talent.

Based on these frank and thoughtful conversations, we have put together a survey that we are in the midst of rolling out right now. We would like to invite you to take our survey and tell us what your view into the world of analytics looks like. To take this survey, click here and follow the instructions. Please forward this link to everyone in your network who works in the analytics field. (You all know how important getting good data is.)

Thanks in advance for your participation and for spreading the word about our work. Jeanne and I look forward to gathering the data, conducting our analysis and sharing the results with the analytics community in the near future.

Big Data, Advanced Analytics

Along these same lines, the focus of the October 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review is big data and advanced analytics. Its cover reads “Getting Control of Big Data: How Vast New Streams of Information are Changing the Art of Management,” and in a series of three “Spotlight” articles by academic and industry leaders, the journal makes an admirable attempt at describing the professional world that we live in for an executive audience.

In “Big Data: The Management Revolution,” MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson point out that data and analysis alone are not enough, asserting that, in order to capitalize on the potential of advanced analytics, companies must also change the way in which the organization digests information and makes decisions. The authors provide a description of many of the challenges of making such changes, but also offer up a tantalizing prize, citing some of their recent research in which they show that “the more companies characterized themselves as data-driven, the better they performed on objective measures of financial and operational results.”

In “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” Tom Davenport (Harris’ co-author on “Competing on Analytics” and “Analytics at Work,” and also currently a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School) and D.J. Patil (data scientist in residence at venture firm Greylock Partners) note that amidst all of the big data hype, there is also significant confusion about the people that turn all that data into value. “There is little consensus on where the role fits in an organization, how data scientists can add the most value, and how their performance should be measured,” they write. From here, they go on to describe their prototype of a successful data scientist (“a hybrid of a data hacker, analyst, communicator and trusted advisor”) and provide high-level guidance on how to find, recruit and manage data scientists.

Finally, McKinsey’s Dominic Barton and David Court open their article “Making Advanced Analytics Work For You” by asserting that “Big data and analytics have rocketed to the top of the corporate agenda,” and then provide a series of tips for executives anxious to avoid making the same types of mistakes made in the adoption of previously “hot” technologies such as CRM.

All interesting articles and all worth reading. Perhaps more notable, I believe, is that HBR’s Editorial Board chose to focus on this topic. For those who have been working on this stuff for a long time, it seems that (to quote an old cigarette ad), you’ve come a long way, baby [2].

Looking forward to seeing what’s next in 2013.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Analytics and Technology at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management. He is also an experienced analytics consultant and entrepreneur, an angel investor in several successful analytics companies and a longtime member of INFORMS.

REFERENCES

  1. For more on George A. Posey and the Posey tube, see www.alamedainfo.com/posey_tube.htm.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Slims.

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