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Analytics Magazine

Learning Culture: Training strategy in analytics consulting domain

March/April 2016

Chandrakant MaheshwariBy Chandrakant Maheshwari

The greatest asset for any organization involved in analytics consulting is its people and the willingness of its consultants to learn new ideas, to enhance their capabilities and to innovate. To ensure that its people remain on top of the latest trends in analytics, consultancies need to emphasize a learning culture, supported by appropriate and ongoing training.

Typically, such training falls into four categories:

  1. New skill/technology. Academicians or developers of a particular technology typically deliver this training. The technologies may be accepted by the general analytics community as effective, but they are not widely implemented due to the lack of experts in the field.
  2. Domain knowledge. In this case, the training focuses on domain areas such as finance, pharmaceutical and marketing. Trainers tell trainees about the importance of these industries to the economy and how businesses operate in these sectors, etc. Trainers talk about general business problems in the respective domains and how these problems are solved and equip the trainees with generic solutions.
  3. Technical skills. Training around technical skills focuses on programming techniques (SAS, R, VBA, etc.) that are common tools in the analytics industry, as well as quantitative techniques (statistics, economics, artificial intelligence, neural networks, etc.).
  4. Soft skills. Training around soft skills generally focuses on communication, particularly training analytics professionals how to communicate their ideas/analysis to stakeholders.

For training related to particular new skills/technology, domain experts are best equipped to lead the way. For the other three, companies generally organize classroom sessions. These sessions involve face-to-face training given by practitioners or via webinars if the teams are scattered in various locations. With increased globalization, webinars are common.

Professionals hired for analytics work generally have advanced degrees in quantitative techniques; for example, they are trained in computer programming at a university. The question the arises: Why do they need training on technical skills? In fact, technical training consumes a majority of a typical organization’s training budget.

The reason is that trainees need to interact with experts who have first-hand experience on industrial implementation of those techniques. The trainers explain the nuances of the implementation by introducing the trainees to real case studies that they, the trainers, have encountered.

The limitation of this approach is that it is active passive interaction. The trainer is usually the active one, and the trainee is the passive one. In face-to-face classroom interaction, the trainer can read the faces of the trainees and impart his or her knowledge in a more effective manner. In webinars, it is quite possible that trainees may lose interest, and the trainer might not have a clue that he or she has lost the audience. The biggest drawback of this approach is that there is a lack of accountability. Trainers may feel that they have given their best, and trainees may be left wanting more.

The first purpose of training should be that both trainer and trainee equally benefit from the process.
The first purpose of training should be that both trainer
and trainee equally benefit from the process.

Given this limitation, consider a new approach suggested by various practitioners called “project-based training” in which senior practitioners act as mentors to trainees. The senior practitioner creates artificially constructed business problems and guides the trainee to solve them in predefined timelines. Trainees will gain domain knowledge and technical skills while exploring and solving the problem. The trainees then present the project process/output to their peers and seniors, thus also developing their communication skills.

Such a training process is not as wide as classroom training, but there is depth. The training develops the trainee’s independent thinking, judgment and confidence, which are key qualities for consultants.

There are two challenges in this approach. First, the trainer does not gain much professionally because the whole process soon gets repetitive. Though he or she gains experience in mentoring and also receives due recognition, they become plateaued. Secondly, from the trainee’s perspective, it is apparent that they are trying to solve an already solved problem, so all their exploration pulls toward the expected results. This limits critical thinking.

Suggested Approach

Given these concerns, it’s appropriate to consider an alternate training approach, but before that let’s understand what is expected from an analytics consultant.

In the current complex business world, most of the time business owners are not clearly aware of the problems they are facing. The geniuses among them are those who are able to determine that there is a business problem in spite of not knowing exactly what it is. When they hire consultants, they are not necessarily looking for quick solutions, but they expect that the consultant understands their pain, thinks through the business process and then works with them to formulate the business problem – a major part of the job.

Such a consultant will be a person who knows how to traverse a business process, understand the nuances of each activity and is not hesitant in asking questions. Asking questions is an art that develops after years of experience and exploration of attitude. The purpose of training should be to direct professionals in that direction.

So the first purpose of training should be that both trainer and trainee equally benefit from the process. For trainers, gains should be continuous and not limited.

Almost all analytics professionals who have worked for more than 10 years must have seen some business problem in their career where they would have felt curious and wanted to do more than what was required but could not proceed because of time constraints. This business problem may be the result of their thought process developed while solving a similar problem or an extension of an existing problem, but the additional work did not match the requirement of their client.

Ideally, such professionals should volunteer as trainers and make that unsolved business problem a training project for trainees and team up with trainees in solving the problem. In this manner, trainers will satisfy their curiosity, they will get a helping hand to see their thought process in action, and they will receive the benefit of enhancing their business understanding.

Meanwhile, trainees will get opportunity to work on a real-world unsolved problem. Asking questions and thinking outside of the box will enhance their critical reasoning. Since they will be looking for a new target, they will not be inclined to converge their answers to a particular given target.

The benefits of such an approach are numerous for all concerned. For example:

  1. Trainers get to see their idea from a fresh perspective, as well as its practicality. As professionals become more senior, they not only develop by doing work but by developing their ability in getting work done.
  2. Trainees get to work on an unsolved problem. In the due process they develop business understanding skills, technical skills and communication skills.
  3. For organizations, this approach will develop the culture within the company where new ideas are created as well as nurtured. Better relationships will be developed between senior and junior resources.
  4. The approach leads to higher accountability. The team will have to come out with a white paper or report about their activities and final finding. This will result in the elevation of the overall thought process and leadership of the organization in the industry.

Parting Thoughts

In the current dynamic world where technology and ideas are moving at the blink of an eye, the purpose of training in analytics should not only be skill-based, but it should also develop a professional who can think through the business process. The consultant should be able to create the relevant questions around it so that he or she can opine on the future relevance of the process. The training should develop the consultant into a mature, confident individual who is able to judge what constitute the data and understand what knowledge it can provide and what its limitations are. Finally, given this understanding, the consultant can make a judgment about which analytical steps should be taken next to answer the problem in hand.

Chandrakant Maheshwari (chandrakant721@yahoo.com) is a subject matter expert in the risk and regulatory practice at Genpact LLC. He leads consulting engagements with global financial institutions, advising clients on financial risk management. He is an avid blogger and blogs at https://chandrakant721.wordpress.com/.

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