Analytics and the importance of soft skills

INFORMS President

Anne Robinson

Anne Robinson

As we get closer to offering the first Certified Analytics Professional (CAP™) exam, I am reminded of the importance of developing soft skills within our community. While the predictive and prescriptive analytical tool boxes are definitely the keys to unlocking value – whether it be business value or societal value – the ability to diagnose a problem or opportunity, effectively characterize it, and be able to interpret and deliver results are paramount for achieving and realizing that value.

In the CAP™ job task analysis, the first domain describes understanding the problem. Too frequently, the problem as it is first presented is more of a symptom than the actual root cause. Before considering data and models, we, as analytics professionals, must converse with clients or stakeholders to uncover the true underlying issues. In addition to ensuring more accurate model formulation and assumptions, this dialogue will help build credibility with key stakeholders. These people will ultimately be our partners throughout the project and the recipients of our results. Creating this initial alignment and engaging with them along the way will also give these stakeholders a greater sense of ownership and acceptance of the project results.

When candidates are being interviewed for advanced analytics positions on my team, particularly new graduates, I always personally test their soft skills competency. Being able to effectively communicate and partner with others are requirements for my team. Three questions have helped me understand someone’s abilities in this area:

  1. Explain a technical concept (of your choosing) in a non-technical way.
  2. Give an example of a team project you were involved in. What were the dynamics of the team? How did you resolve conflict?
  3. Describe an industry project you completed. What was the problem you were trying to solve? What results and recommendations did you make? Were they implemented?

These questions may sound trivial or rather simple, but they are quite revealing. The first question has presented me with many creative answers. The answers showcase a person’s ability to articulate a concept in a simple, concise manner. The second question constantly surprises me. Many students admit to never having worked with a team. Understanding team dynamics is vital to project success, and being a good team member is as important as being a team leader. The third question really explores understanding the problem. While finding a good, closed form solution to a hard model is very interesting, I suspect most business leaders are more concerned about the impact to the top or bottom line.

president's desk

Being able to effectively communicate and partner with others are requirements for teamwork.

I think we can do more to increase the strength of soft skills in our new advanced analytics graduates. Here is what I ask of you:

  • Students: Take internships and classes that allow you to have hands-on experiences with messy data and real problems. Even if you are on the path to becoming an academic, this will increase the relevancy of your research going forward.
  • Educators: Please allow students to have the opportunity to explore the end-to-end analytical process. Challenge them to understand and uncover the true problem, rather than handing them a predefined problem set.
  • Practitioners: Engage with universities, create internships that allow students to learn the full analytic process and present their findings to relevant audiences. Provide real problems for academics to work on with their students.

Also, keep your eyes open for the INFORMS soft skills workshop; this is a great opportunity to learn new skills or brush up on your existing skills. We want INFORMS to be the leading provider of advanced analytics talent. The addition of strong soft skills to our portfolio will ensure our talent delivers the most value.