FORUM

What the INFORMS Roundtable thinks

By John Gunckel and Jeff Winters

The INFORMS Roundtable is comprised of a diverse group of 45 world-class analytics organizations of all sizes across many industries whose purpose is to share best practices and recent developments in operations research, management science and analytics. The Roundtable institutionalized a “What does the Roundtable Think?” session at the summer 2014 meeting where Roundtable members were broken into groups and asked to address questions relevant to managing an analytics organization. The findings were presented at an INFORMS Board meeting to help keep the Board abreast of trends/issues associated with managing an analytics group in practice.

At the spring 2016 meeting, the Roundtable hosted another “What does the Roundtable Think?” session focused primarily on staffing and on what makes analytics projects successful. This article summarizes the findings and discussion that at times seemed contradictory, reflecting the diversity and uniqueness of organizations represented on the Roundtable.

Staffing

Skill sets: A common theme among the organizations represented is the need for soft skills that are necessary for success. Concerns noted by organizations were the need for basic communication skills, project management skills (for both people and technology), ability to communicate business issues/solutions/results/benefits and the overall ability to “tell a story.” The story needs to be easily comprehended by the intended audience through verbal, written, visualization and other communication vehicles. Other skills noted were the need for overall perspective. For example, a need to emphasize business value delivered instead of tools or techniques employed. Company managers want results and are less interested in exactly how it is accomplished.

Another area noted by some organizations was the need to emphasize basic math and programming skills. Some new hires are coming out of academic programs without this basic foundation, which will require additional training and expense.

Geographic organization: Roundtable organizations reported that analytical groups could be centrally located or distributed. Reasons cited include the type/size of organization, importance of local domain knowledge, common language/culture, etc. For example, consulting firms were more likely to consolidate analytic resources and travel to work sites. Reasons to consolidate include mentoring and the need for “community of practice” among analytic professionals.

Recruiting & Retention: Roundtable companies are seeing competition for analytic talent increasing and must respond to the marketplace forces. Analytic professionals (especially young new hires) expect good pay and flexibility. Roundtable companies report that there are many new options for workplace mobility that are being explored, pay expectations are going up but vary geographically, and poaching is a problem in high-tech areas such as Silicon Valley. High-tech companies spend a lot of effort screening applicants, which makes them desirable to other companies. Company approaches to analytic job titles vary with some emphasizing professional roles. Some are using umbrella terms such as “data scientist” or “data analytics” to define roles instead of a hierarchy of job titles.

Recruiting and retention of analytically trained women is generally recognized among Roundtable companies as important. The approach to bringing women into the pipeline varies greatly. Companies cite a rich set of diversified applicants, use of role models, and equal opportunity programs as tools to increase the number of qualified women applicants.

Making Analytics Projects Successful

Managing an analytics project: One area that created significant discussion is how to set up an analytics project for success and how to deal with failure. Roundtable companies employ a variety of approaches to maximize the likelihood of success. Key success practices identified include the following:

  • Define business issue and criteria for success.
  • Avoid scope creep.
  • Set up an executive steering team.
  • Set and control expectations.
  • Focus on incremental improvement as opposed to big bang efforts. If things don’t work out, you want to fail quickly and learn why. Prototyping is very helpful.
  • Engage and communicate with the customer throughout the entire process.
  • Training and selling are key.

Analytics professionals impact: Member companies reported that measuring the impact of analytics professionals is very important, but it can be difficult and subjective. Determining the best method (both quantitative and qualitative) is challenging since there is no one measure that works best or can capture overall impact. Member companies report using normal HR performance indices, economic measures, project reviews and peer reviews. Roundtable companies agree that measuring impact is an ongoing concern.

Partnering with universities: Among Roundtable members, working with universities is generally an important way to extend their overall analytics impact and augment existing resources. Various methods employed are as follows: student internships, student capstone projects, research partnerships, university grants/funding for special interests, guest lecturer and sponsored hack-a-thons.

There is general agreement that work with universities is beneficial but not without issues with intellectual property and control.

Open source software: Member companies report a tremendous demand for using open source software due to the breadth and usefulness. Younger employees fresh out of school are seen as some of the biggest drivers of this trend since most academic institutions are using open source software. Some obstacles to broadening the use of open source software are indemnification and support issues. However, some companies are using commercially available open source “wrappers” to overcome these obstacles.

Summary

The 2016 “What does the Roundtable think?” responses varied widely and reflect the breadth of the INFORMS Roundtable, but there are some common themes:

  • Soft skills are a very important factor in finding new OR/MS talent and often define the success or failure of a new candidate in an organization.
  • Successful projects depend on reaching a common understanding of requirements up front and making sure the customer is involved throughout the development process.
  • Measuring the value of an OR/MS employee is difficult, but evaluating the effectiveness of the overall product and using peer reviews is a reasonable approach.
  • Partnering with universities offers many challenges, but there are ways to increase interaction.
  • Open source software is probably not going away.

John Gunckel, managing director at FedEx Express, is secretary of the INFORMS Roundtable. Jeff Winters, director, Small Package Operations Research, United Parcel Service, is a past president of the Roundtable and current vice president of meetings for the organization. The INFORMS Roundtable (www.informs.org/Community/Roundtable) promotes OR/MS excellence in practice, provides practitioner-inspired leadership to the profession and promotes the personal professional growth of Roundtable representatives.