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Analytics Magazine

Soft skills: The ‘killer app’ for analytics

November/December 2011

David LeonhardiBy David Leonhardi

In today’s turbocharged digitized world, there seems to be an “application” (“app”) for almost everything. The intent of the app software is to help the user perform singular or multiple related specific tasks on a repetitive basis. In the field of analytics and decision analysis, the apps analogy can be made when we think about the entire list of “hard and soft” skills that are used when we are working to bring discipline and analytical rigor to business decision-making.

“Hard skill” apps can be classified as the left-brain technical skills and include analytical processes, procedures and techniques that are used to perform all forms of descriptive, prescriptive and predictive analytics. The “soft skill” apps can be classified as the right-brain interpersonal/personal skills that cover a large continuum of proficiencies such as communication skills, conflict resolution and negotiation, creative problem-solving, strategic thinking, team building, influencing skills and selling skills.

Like apps in the digital world, hard and soft skills are being used by practitioners in a myriad of combinations to satisfy the growing demand for analytical decision-making in a wide continuum of business situations. The success of today’s decision analysts and analytical practitioners depends on the types of hard and soft skill apps in their toolboxes along with their abilities to creatively apply their apps to satisfy the needs of their customers.

Focusing on the acquisition of hard skills is easy since formal education and new analysis tools and training are readily available and are more tangible and easier to learn than soft skills (e.g., learning how to use a new simulation software package vs. learning how to be a better communicator). However, it is no longer sufficient to just bring a toolbox dominated by technical hard skills since they are becoming commonplace in today’s business word. People are becoming more comfortable manipulating and analyzing information due to the pervasive use of spreadsheets and the availability of data. Microsoft gauges the number of Excel users worldwide at more than 400 million [1], and business data is being mined at an exponential rate and disseminated to managers who want to tap into that data and gain insights to make better decisions [2].

The second problem with this perspective is that the expectations of customers for analytic and decision analysis activities are changing. Customers are no longer looking for someone to simply do the number-crunching analysis. They are also looking for people who have the skills to effectively identify and frame a business opportunity or problem, manage a team to develop and analyze potential solutions, communicate insights and recommendations all while collaborating with the various stakeholders needed to make and implement the decisions associated with the business situation. The bottom line is customers are looking for a strong set of soft skills in addition to technical hard skills.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

All too often practitioners approach a situation from a technical solution viewpoint and frame the problem based on the hard skills they have in their toolbox verses using soft skills to investigate the dimensions of the business situation and tailoring their approach to match the organizational, analytical and content (data) complexities they are facing. This lack of soft skill usage can greatly impact the execution of projects and prove to be a barrier to adoption of decision analysis and analytics within organizations [3].

Fortunately, a growing recognition in the analytical community of the importance of soft skills, along with the complementary role that they play with technical hard skills, is leading to increased soft-skill competencies in practitioners. This year the spring INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research held its first dedicated soft skills track along with the Soft Skills Workshop. The soft skills track was the third highest attended track of the conference and the Soft Skills Workshop was sold out for the third year in a row.

Publications such as Analytics Magazine and business trade magazines are publishing more articles that focus on soft skills (for example, this is the second article this year covering in Analytics Magazine on the topic of soft skills [4]). Specialized soft skills training curriculums and course offerings that provide avenues for exposure to different soft skills have also become more prevalent. The one aspect that still needs to be addressed is the paradigm associated with integrating the two skill sets into a complementary offering that can be used to differentiate your work from other practitioners. This rest of this article offers a paradigm for turning soft skills into “The Killer App for Analytics” and how it can be incorporated into the products and services that you offer.

Whole New Mindset

In 2005, Daniel Pink published a book titled “A Whole New Mind Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age,” a guide to “surviving, thriving and finding meaning in a world rocked by the outsourcing of jobs abroad and the computerization of our lives” [5]. I purchased this book based on its intriguing title with no intention of revamping the decision consulting services that I offer. But looking back over the past six years since reading the book, it has had one of the biggest impacts on the way I differentiate and deliver my services as an internal consultant at a large corporation.

The basic premise of “A Whole New Mind” is that the societal and economic forces of abundance, globalization/outsourcing and automation are causing a progression from the Information Age where “knowledge” workers are well-educated manipulators of information and deployers of expertise to a new age which Pink has labeled the “Conceptual Age,” where workers have the aptitudes of “high concept” (the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new and craft a satisfying narrative) and “high touch” (the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning [5]).

The implications of this societal shift on workers is that Information Age “left brain” capabilities found in knowledge workers are necessary but not sufficient, and that workers need to develop “right brain” capabilities to become creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers in the Conceptual Age. In order to navigate through the emerging landscape, six new abilities (design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning) will need to be mastered [5]. By intertwining these abilities with a rich toolbox of technical skills you can create a unique offering that addresses the needs of the business situation and that will increase the probability of success in executing your projects. The following are some examples of how you can deploy these new abilities in the execution of your projects:

Not just function; it’s also about the “design.” Functional products and services are no longer enough; you need to be able to design emotionally engaging products and services [5]. In an increasingly fast-paced business environment, executives and project team members have limited time, especially when a project is assigned in addition to regular responsibilities. This dynamic can make it difficult to keep attention focused on execution of the project. To counter-act these time pressures, facilitation and coaching techniques along with software applications can be combined to deploy rapid project framing workshops, creativity workshops for innovating different solutions for a given business situation, rapid decision-modeling workshops, decision dialogue facilitation and stake-holder coaching/education.

Not just argument; it’s also about the “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 [5]. One of the hardest things to do is create and present a compelling rational to gain commitment to action. Project teams have a tendency to work in isolation and get to the point of making a recommendation with a “big” report-out for the project that tells the “whole” story all at once. The problem with this is that the level of understanding achieved during the report-out may not be high enough to gain commitment to action. By facilitating an on-going dialogue throughout the life of the project between all of the stakeholders you can create a shared understanding as the project progresses, thereby increasing the probability of gaining commitment to action.

Two other elements that help in creating a compelling rational are value-based conversations and scenario formulation/analysis. You need to be able to address the values of the stakeholders (what objectives do they have, what risks are they trying to avoid) and how well the solutions brought forward deal with the values. Scenario formulation and analysis helps to test assumptions that are used and create insight around the robustness of the recommendations.

Not just focus; it’s also a “symphony.” What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis. You need to see the big picture, integrate and synthesize to create something more than the sum of its parts [5]. One of the most important elements of a project is the communications between stakeholders and the project team, especially when initial insights can be communicated. By striving to gain a shared understanding of early insights, you can increase the chance of incubating hybrid solutions based on the desirable aspects of the different alternatives under consideration.

Not just logic; it’s also about “empathy.” In the world of ubiquitous information and advanced analytic tools, logic alone won’t do. You need to understand others, forge relationships and care about others [5]. In the upfront stages of getting a project under way you need to think about what you are trying to accomplish and make sure to incorporate the appropriate stakeholders to increase your probability of success. It is easy to follow the strategy of developing a business solution and thinking that the implementation of the solution is something that will be dealt with at a later point in time. By including representation of the stakeholders affected by the solution early in the process, you have the opportunity to understand issues that can profoundly impact the outcome of your project along with building support for the implementation of the recommendations.

Not just serious; it’s also about “play.” Work and life is not all about being serious; you also need to have the ability to have fun [5]. The relationship that is created across a project team can make or break a project. As a project leader, you have the ability to build activities (e.g., team presentations, team executive interactions, recognition of contributions, celebrations of project completion) into the project execution to foster good relationships between team members and team ownership of the project. Try to gain an understanding of the personality types on the project team so you can anticipate the dynamics you may encounter and plan for any needs you may have to address.

Not just accumulation; it’s also about “meaning.” We live in a time of plenty. We need to pursue and satisfy more significant desires [5]. If executive decision-makers can make decisions based on a better understanding of the business situation’s frame or the available alternatives – without the need for further analysis – analysis becomes accumulation without meaning. I have saved valuable time for executives and project teams on many occasions by simply asking the question, “Can you take action now?” By not taking the time to ask this simple question, we run the risk of alienating decision-makers by taking up more of their time with non-value added activities since they are ready to move on. Being flexible in project and process execution, having ongoing dialogues with stakeholders and asking if they have enough information to take action, can ensure that actions and analysis have meaning and impact.

In the long run, it will be interesting to see if we are indeed moving into the “Conceptual Age”; my belief is that we are. Within the company where I work, I see a growing demand for individuals with high concept/high touch skills in all aspects of the business. This is making soft skills a valuable component of any practitioner’s toolbox and valuable in the execution of projects. The prepared practitioners will take an inventory of their soft skills and make a plan to nurture and grow their soft skill “abilities.” The successful practitioners will turn these soft skills into the “killer app” for analytics and survive as we move into the Conceptual Age.

David Leonhardi (david.r.leonhardi@boeing.com) is a business strategist in Boeing Commercial Airplane’s Strategy Integration Group where he leads strategy development activities associated with future airplane product lines and production systems, collaborative business relationships and new business development opportunities.

REFERENCES

  1. 1. Banham, Russ, “Up and Away – Companies are feeling a little less trapped by spreadsheets these days,” CFO Magazine, Dec. 1, 2008.
  2. Olavson, Thomas and Cargille, Brian, “Inside HP,” Analytics-Magazine.org, Winter 2008, pp. 20-25.
  3. Capgemini 2010 analytics market study.
  4. Marvin, F. Freeman and Klimack, William K., “Six soft skills every analyst needs to know,” Analytics-Magazine.org, January/February 2011, pp. 10-15.
  5. Pink, Daniel H., “A Whole New Mind Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age,” Berkley Publishing Group, New York, N.Y., 2005.

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