Business analytics is the magical art of turning your business data into decision-ready information. I call it an art because it takes more than just analytical skills to render a good analysis. Making sense of data requires an understanding of the underlying business, a propensity for out-of-the-box thinking and a good dose of graphical communication skills.
It is therefore not a common set of skills that may readily be found in job portals and other human resource services. It isn’t so much about finding a good business analyst as to actually nurturing a good potential into a magician. So what kind of skills should an apprentice sorcerer have?
This is the most obvious of skills. Someone with a background in mathematical sciences if a good candidate. A degree in physics is ideal, one in maths will also do, and subsequently any other degree or even work experience with an understanding for simple analytical tools such as data correlations, statistical averages and its distribution variance, as well as a fair experience of working weighted distributions, how does one contributing factor can be weighted relative to another to better understand its effects. The most analysis concentrates on averages ignoring or undermining the variance of the underlying distribution. So someone with a good mathematical background is essential.
Business skills are essential in understanding the data that one manipulates. Data distributions, averages, variances, correlation and so on can be done on any set of data by someone with a good set of analytical skills, however, this is just applying a tool and not really understanding what the result means. For example, looking at a company financial data one could treat all expenses as a set of data to be analysed, without differentiating say between fixed and floating cost,. This is a classic case of comparing oranges with apples.
Therefore the deeper the understanding of the business and its goals, the sharper and more subtle the analysis. This invariably translates into decision-ready information that can be of immense value to the business directors. However, these are skills that can only be learned on the job with guidance and training. BI analysts need to be in daily contact with the management of the business to refine their understanding of the business goals and obstacles.
This is a skill many seek to have, but not easy to obtain. Creative and fresh thinking makes a big difference in BI analysis. There is many a situation, where insight in a particular data distribution is not sufficient to come up with meaningful analysis. For example, take two sales team of a company from two different regions. One team appears to make more sales than the other, how does one go about comparing the composition of the two teams in order to get an insight as to why the performance differs.
Is it that one team has more experience than the other, or maybe have better facilities giving them more time, or is it simply a market factor? Comparing two teams is not easy, but one can start making certain assumptions about the composition of an ideal team, weighing each member’s skill contribution factor to the overall performance of the team and come up with a comparative measure of each team’s potential. Creative thinking allows one to model what is the composition of an ideal team, independently of the teams under study and therefore allowing one to compare the two teams against an uncorrelated reference point.
This is where out of the box thinking comes into play, the ability to make assumptions, test them, fine-tune them and come up with a reasonable model to get an understanding of the underlying data. From experience, people exposed to data modeling and exposure to a wide range of knowledge develops the kind of skills creative BI thinking requires.
Graphical communication skills
Graphical skills are important to communicate the information revealed by data analysis. The process of analysing business data a lot of information will be created, some of it is more important than others. The analysis is presented as a series of graphs, most of the time bar or line graphs indicating past and the current trends in a way that a business leader is able to quickly grasp.
Furthermore, a periodic review of the same graphs often leads to complacency in understanding the information. This is where a good analyst is able to make use of innovative graphical communication skills to grab the attention of the reviewer. Differentiation and correlation are two important aspects of graphical communication that can are often poorly represented.
All in all a BI wizard needs to acquire the full set of skills on the job itself but nonetheless needs to be equipped with the statistical tools required for the trade as well as a good dose of creativeness to master the art.
A small test
In my previous avatar, I was heading the performance team of a large IT back office, reporting directly to the executive committee. In order to recruit good resources for this work was not an easy task. As such, I got to interview a number of potential candidates with the right mix of knowledge and experience. In order to test the above skills, I came up with a simple test on an excel sheet. I would ask the candidate to take the test home and send me their work within a week, the idea being that this was not an exam but rather a test of creativity, I was happy for them to seek help from other sources if need be, as long as the work was theirs. There is no right answer, but rather a range of possible answers which illustrate the candidate’s ability to think and apply common sense. You can contact me with your answers if you wish to discuss possible solutions.
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Aurovrata is a Frenchman made in India! Schooled in Pondicherry and Ooty, he went on to get a PhD in Astrophysics from Imperial College, London; worked as an analyst at a large investment bank, developed data tools for the planetary missions of the European Space Agency, assisted in the running of an aircraft company in Bangalore, and recently headed the performance team at Renault-Nissan IS centre in Chennai. Today, he heads the Creative strategy and Analytics department of a small consultancy firm offering Business Intelligence and Sustainable Business practices services to SMEs. He also maintains a blog on sustainable development in India, Syllogic Thinks! and a humour blog called Only In India. You can tweet him @aurovrata.