Skills for the modern data analyst: How to add true value to your business
Traditionally speaking, analytics professionals are associated purely with technical skill. They’re seen as the office’s mathematicians and scientists – those who can be called upon to objectively examine numbers and translate them into insights.
That ingrained stereotype still reigns across many organisations, but the world of business analytics is undergoing a metamorphosis.
Technical aptitude will always be a requirement for analytics roles, but most companies are now demanding much more than just ‘number-crunching’ abilities from their analytical staff, because the reports alone do not add true value. The value comes when the recommendations contained within the reports are actioned – and for this to happen, analysts need to be proactive and vocal in order to develop true presence and credibility.
Data democratisation and the rising demand for analytical professionals
Businesses of all types are now collecting more data than ever before. Well-established organisations are using data to modernise their approaches and their offerings. Many new organisations have used it to drive their businesses from day one.
This abundance of data and the increased focus on it mean that demand for skilled analytical staff is at an all-time high. As such, an analyst who can identify solutions and explain those clearly is the most efficient type.
So, here are the skills and attributes that are now pivotal to long-term success in an analytical role.
1. Communication and relationship-building
Most working relationships require trust and mutual respect between the two parties, and this starts with clear communication flowing both ways.
At the outset of the project, the stakeholder has to communicate their needs to the analyst. The problem is this briefing process often consists of the stakeholder simply stating a prescriptive list of ‘wants’. These requests can easily be misplaced, infeasible or not articulated in a particularly analytical way. It’s imperative the analyst digs deeper into what is being asked of them, communicates proactively and questions (and if necessary challenges) the requestor in order to develop a robust and true brief that will hit the spot first time for the stakeholder. Without this two-way communication the analyst will most likely open themself up to re-doing tasks, however by working consultatively, in a proactive manner, the analyst will be able to develop a better brief from an understanding of the commercial problem or challenge the stakeholder is attempting to address.
Once a working relationship is established, it has to be maintained. An analyst who provides regular progress updates will secure the stakeholder’s trust and credibility, paving the way for future smooth-running projects.
If the analyst proactively communicates with all stakeholders, this goes a long way towards abolishing the passive model of working.
2. Planning and workload management
When projects are planned thoroughly and analysts’ workloads are monitored carefully to ensure that deadlines are achievable, the likelihood of high-quality outputs is much higher, and stakeholders are satisfied.
Typically, however, many analysts have to juggle several pieces of work simultaneously. Without the careful management of workload teams can quickly find the trust and credibility they may have worked hard to develop with stakeholders dissipating rapidly as they over-promise and under-deliver.
Whilst effective planning will help considerably, proactively managing expectations and being assertive will ensure that the analyst avoids succumbing to the temptation of saying ‘yes’ to all work in an attempt to please their stakeholders.
- Building an understanding of their own capacity is key to an analyst knowing how much work they can take on and will help them set realistic deadlines and expectations.
- Developing assertiveness will help empower analysts to stop saying ‘yes’ to all work, allowing them to keep on top of tasks and avoid growing to-do lists.
- Evaluating workload constantly and clearly communicating their priorities to stakeholders will help avoid awkward negotiations and build trust among teams
- Stopping underestimating timescales and adding a contingency will help analysts prevent creeping deadlines
3. Negotiation and assertiveness
If an analyst feels pressured to please a stakeholder, they’ll agree to unfeasible deadlines, which often results in lower-quality work, and this can ultimately lead to poorer decision-making.
To avoid this, the analyst must be able to negotiate and be politely assertive whenever they feel as though a project timeframe is unachievable.
Each analyst’s negotiation style will depend largely on their inherent personality-type, as well as other factors, such as the organisation they work for and their position within it. If they’re a long-serving employee who already has a reputation for high-quality work, they may not have to be as accommodating as newer or more junior analysts. That said, being collaborative and willing to compromise (where appropriate) stands any analyst in good stead.
To make sure their work has the decision-making impact it should, the modern analyst has to be a master of persuasion, getting stakeholders totally bought into the value of their insight. This begins with an awareness of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion:
- Reciprocating favours
- Highlighting scarcity
- Conveying authority
- Ensuring consistency
- Being liked/likeable
- Highlighting consensus
The analyst must also learn about other influencing techniques such as anchoring and framing, and the scenarios in which to apply them. For example, if the analyst knows that the stakeholder’s primary concern is saving money, they can frame the various consequences of actions based on how much money would be lost in each. Or if the stakeholder is a particularly positive person, the argument could be framed in the positive rather than the negative.
5. Adaptability of perspective
Seeing situations from the non-analyst point of view is difficult for many analysts – at least initially – but it is vital to producing business-minded, actionable insights.
For example, quite often analyst thinking can naturally be more logical and numerate, whilst others in the business may be diametrically opposed to this and be more innovative and creative – the so-called ‘right brain’ vs ‘left brain’ argument.
What this means for analysts is that they need to be able to adopt the mindset of each stakeholder they work with to properly understand what that stakeholder really wants from the situation.
6. Personality profiling and awareness
Every workplace contains a mixture of personalities. Distinguishing between the different personality types and knowing how to communicate effectively with each one is both an art and a science.
This is a vital skill for the modern analyst to develop, because it will aid their ability to communicate and negotiate with their stakeholders, and will partly decide how much influence they ultimately have. For example, a marketing manager might be interested in the recommendations and what they should do next, whereas a finance manager might be more interested in the details and validating how the recommendations were arrived at.
During the process, the analyst should first look inwardly and identify what their own personality-type is, to understand what they are like to work with. This self-awareness will make the analyst more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, highlighting areas they might need to work on – such as a lack of decisiveness or a tendency to overpromise.
7. Emotional intelligence
Intelligence comes in different forms and whilst typically analysts will have generally high IQs it’s important to acknowledge the importance of emotional intelligence also.
“An analyst who is emotionally intelligent will find it easier to build and manage relationships, which is a key part of any modern analytics role.”
Being sensitive and empathetic to the emotions of others leads to better collaboration, and also helps the analyst to gauge the best way to influence the other person. Emotional intelligence is also about being self-aware – with the analyst knowing how their emotions impact colleagues, and knowing how they themselves are affected by colleagues’ emotions.
Unlike IQ, Emotional Intelligence can be learnt and, so, this should always be part of an analysts’ development plan. If an analyst can develop their emotional intelligence, they will eventually have better control of their own emotions, read situations more accurately and be better placed to motivate themselves and stay motivated.
8. Data visualisation
Every analyst understands their own working out and the conclusions they reach, but they need to make sure that everyone else understands just as clearly.
As ‘everyone else’ mainly consists of non-analytical colleagues and stakeholders, findings should be presented in easily understandable formats. For example, using simple, explanatory charts can have a far greater impact than the exploratory charts or infographics typically used in presentations. This is because exploratory charts force the audience to develop their own interpretation of the visualisation, whereas explanatory charts deliver a message very clearly and leave the audience in no doubt as to what the interpretation is. Typically dashboards contain mainly exploratory monitoring charts, while formal presentations use explanatory charts for clarity.
This process of simplification can be a particular struggle for analysts who are biased heavily towards the left side of the brain, because they relish the detail and can see the wood for the trees. Exploratory charts make immediate sense to most analysts (especially ones they’ve produced themselves), but decision-makers much prefer explanatory charts, because these take far less time to interpret and digest, and they deliver clear messages.
A common misconception that some analysts can have is that their work needs to look complex in order to be perceived as valuable. In reality, the opposite is true – because decision-makers simply want to know what course of action they should take in any given scenario.
9. Storytelling with data
To complement the clear visualisation of data, analysts also need to tell stories within their reports – articulating coherent narratives that make compelling arguments.
To effectively do this the analyst needs to take a step back and employ a top-down ‘needs’ led approach to designing their slides rather than the bottom up approach which commonly leads to over-bloated, detailed presentations which lack focus and message.
“It’s about simplifying the message for the audience, as well as engaging the audience and persuading them to make a particular decision at the end of it all.”
If a stakeholder receives a final report that is poorly constructed or ambiguous in its recommendations, they will be less inclined to buy into it and less likely to heed its advice – even though it is the right advice.
10. Deep company knowledge and commercial awareness
Every analyst needs to understand their employer’s offering and position in the market, but the modern analyst will benefit from going a step further and really becoming immersed in their organisation.
Many companies are now hiring ‘analytics translators’ to join their analytics departments, effectively acting as the bridge between the analysts and the decision-makers. As part of the role, the analytics translator is expected to have a deep understanding of their organisation’s strategy and performance (current and past), because this gives them the context needed to ensure that the analytics department is making recommendations that are realistic and aligned with company goals.
As such, if an individual analyst can develop that same level of company knowledge and commercial awareness, that’s one more significant string added to their bow, and it also opens up the potential for them to move into the analytics translator role or even an analyst management position.
Technical skills meet soft skills
What the data analyst’s role essentially boils down to, nowadays, is a combination of practical expertise and the ability to collaborate with colleagues and other departments across the business. Having a way with spreadsheets, tables and graphs is only part of the job.
The good news is that the required soft skills can be developed in analysts; they don’t have to be born with them. You just need to pave the way and make your analysts aware of what is expected and why. Here’s how to do that:
- Regular training – Some of this will be training that you provide internally within your organisation, but it can also include courses or detailed workshops that are delivered by external specialists. An outsider’s perspective can be incredibly valuable, and the novelty of working with external trainers will offer a little more variety to your analysts, which should help to keep them motivated.
- Achievable personal development plans (PDPs) – As each analyst has their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own motivations and general career aspirations, it’s important to set customised PDPs for each individual. As a consequence, your analysts will feel as though you’re investing time in their development, which should motivate them in turn. Of course, if there are any shared goals or areas for improvement across the whole analytical team, include those on everyone’s – because, at the end of the day, PDPs are about identifying skills-gaps and filling them.
- Regular performance reviews – Checking in on your analysts to see how they’re measuring up against their PDPs is a vital part of the progression process. When workloads are heavy, PDPs can sometimes fall by the wayside, but that can be counterproductive in the long term, because your analysts won’t develop new skills at the rates they should be. As such, holding regular performance reviews to remind your analysts about their goals and ensure that they remain motivated is important – and if there’s anything in particular that’s preventing them from achieving their goals, you can step in to help.
How to train and retain the analysts of today
As the goalposts continue to move for analytical professionals, businesses need to support their development in order to keep them satisfied in their work and in the company itself.
If your analysts are expanding their skill-sets through regular, relevant training and following PDPs to become even better at what they do, there’s a far higher likelihood that you’ll retain their talent in the long term. And this is what will ultimately add more value to your business, because you’ll have analysts who truly know your organisation and are invested in its continued success.
Our in-depth guide – How to train and retain your data analysts – explains exactly how to go about raising the profiles of your analysts while also ensuring that they remain motivated and satisfied in their roles.