How to be a High-Performing Analytics Company

October 12, 2015

By Ken Beaulieu

The growth of digital media has opened the door for businesses to make smarter marketing decisions based on data analytics. Unfortunately, studies show that few marketers have a high degree of competence in data management. To learn why, we reached out to Simon James, a global leader of the analytics practice at SapientNitro, a Boston-based marketing and consultancy company. Simon, who will teach the new ANA digital innovation lab Creating Competitive Advantage Through Data Analytics, November 4 in New York City, also shares his thoughts on the key drivers of success in data analytics, how to create a culture of continuous learning, and more.

Q. Why is the use of data analytics difficult to adopt at many organizations?
A. Analytics can have a pervasive effect on a business. It challenges and provokes an outbreak of introspection that is not always welcome. Therefore, the key barrier to adoption is largely cultural rather than technical. Similar to giving up smoking or going on a diet, the benefits are reaped in the long term, and in order to get to tomorrow, you are going to have to put up with some discomfort today. So unless there is a commitment from the top that the pain is worth the gain, many good intentioned analytics initiatives fail to be adopted. Therefore, as much focus must be given to the cultural impact of adopting a more evidence-based marketing decision-making strategy as to the technical implementation itself.

Q. What are some of the drivers of success in data analytics?
A. First, any data analytics function needs to be championed by a senior leader within the business. His/her sponsorship is crucial to ensuring insights are acted upon. Second, there needs to be a clear process for how data is organized into information — information analyzed to generate insight, and insight providing decision-makers with the courage of their convictions to act in a timely fashion. Third, there needs to be a learning culture within an organization where poor results are viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than to instigate a witch hunt. If you can get leadership, process, and a learning culture in place, I would say you are well on your way to being a high performing analytics company.

Q. What are the main challenges of turning information into actionable insights?
A. The key challenge is getting timely and accurate data, in an easy-to-digest format, into the hands of business users. The business users are the ones who have the context — context on the market, on customers, on competitors. Only through contextualizing data can you turn it into actionable insights. For too long, data analysts have been left to their own devices to formulate hypotheses, when the real insight comes from the experts within a business rather than from someone with a machine learning or statistics degree. This is why we see such huge growth in the democratization of data through data visualization, infographics, and data journalism. Analytics is no longer seen as a black box, to be unblinkingly and unquestionably relied upon to get to the truth. It is an input to decision-making, not an output in its own right. There is no truth in analytics, only better informed opinions.

Q. What key steps can companies take to create a culture of continuous learning?
A. The first step is achieving 20:20 hindsight. While this sounds like crude common sense, surprisingly few companies have a perfect view of what has happened. Without a firm grip of the past, you can’t begin to think about improving the future. The second step is to have a process that generates timely, actionable insights that allow you to make informed decisions. This requires rigor and discipline around people, process, and technology. Once you have these things in place, you can attain the highest level of maturity, and the killer application of analytics, generating foresight and the strategic and competitive advantage it brings.

Through peer collaboration, resources, and action plans, attendees of the ANA digital innovation lab Creating Competitive Advantage Through Data Analytics will learn how to build analytics competence within their organizations.

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