CONTINUING EDUCATION

By Peter Horner, editorpeter.horner@mail.informs.org

Patrick Noonan earned an MBA from the Yale School of Management, but it wasn’t until he went to work for management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he says, that he really began to learn and appreciate the “essential skills” for analytics professionals. Thirty years later, Noonan, now a professor of Practice of Decision & Information Analysis at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, has packed all of the “best practices” of consulting he has garnered over the last three decades into one of the first courses offered by INFORMS’ … continuing education program. The course, “Essential Skills for Analytics Professionals,” will be offered Nov. 7-8 in Washington, D.C.

The skills Noonan is talking about aren’t taught at Yale or most other business or engineering schools, yet they are critical in real-world problem-solving. According to Noonan, the “essential” analytics consulting skills include: 1) defining the client’s problem properly, 2) problem structuring and work planning, 3) managing a project or team and, 4) making the case for change and implementation of the analysis and recommendations through persuasive communication.

After a five-year stint at McKinsey, Noonan returned to academia, earned a Ph.D. in Decision Science from Harvard University and joined the business school faculty at Emory. He continued to consult and teach executive education business courses … and never forgot his McKinsey experience and the “essential/professional” skills he first learned there.

Recognizing a blind spot in his MBA students’ education, he created a “professional skills” workshop for his MBA students that started as an extracurricular activity but has since become a required course for Emory MBAs in which he brings in consultants to share their ideas and “best practices” with MBA students of all stripes.

Noonan, who has taught more than 5,000 MBAs, describes the INFORMS continuing education course on essential skills as an expanded version of the course he teaches at Emory, tailored for analytics professionals. For more information on the INFORMS’ Continuing Education Program and the “Essential Skills for Analytics Professionals” course, visit www.informs.org/Certification-Continuing-Ed/INFORMS-Continuing-Education.

Earlier this year, OR/MS Today editor Peter Horner interviewed Noonan regarding the course. Following are excerpts.

What makes this course unique?

What makes it unique is it’s taking a body of knowledge and a cannon of techniques about problem-solving in consultancy and applying it specifically to analytics professionals. We’re providing an opportunity to supercharge capabilities to solve real problems by combing analytics professionals’ subject matter expertise with the best practices of consulting. … People in INFORMS and the analytics community have ideas and tools and capabilities to tackle very complicated problems, but those problems exist in a context of decision-makers and resources and organizations and policy-makers and people who need to implement any solutions. … The true power of a professional’s analytical skills we hope is going to be unleashed by helping empower them with skills you might call “figuring it out” and “getting it done.”

Can you expand on what you mean by the skills outlined in the course description, starting with “defining the problem properly.”

Defining the problem properly involves skills about interviewing a client or the problem-owner. Identifying the need to change. Getting scope and criteria identified early on. Getting the key question framed properly. In other words, starting by getting a good, early problem definition and talking with the problem-owners to really understand the context of the problem.

And “problem structuring and work planning.”

How do you convert a good key question into a set of work that needs to be done? Indentifying what kind of work would be needed or useful for that. Creating a manageable work plan and tying these issues to actual deliverables. Working the plan is about managing a project or a team. Testing intermediate results and avoiding analysis by paralysis. Deciding when enough is enough and developing practical recommendations.

Finally, “making the case.”

Using the best practices of persuasive communication and understanding the levers of persuasion. Trying to see problems from the perspective of non-O.R. people. How do you write a strong story line that’s logically tight and supported by evidence, but one that can be understood and accepted by the real decision-makers? How do you create value and organizational change? It’s a lot more than having a smart solution and a right answer. It’s tackling the right question, using information that’s actually available, and connecting the conclusions with actionable recommendations and persuading the people who have to do things that those are good ideas.

Much of what you describe sounds like what is often referred to as “soft skills.”

You notice we avoid that phrase. Some people hear the term “soft skills” and they think it’s all about subjectivity, it’s touchy-feely stuff … but these are systematic, structured techniques and methods that force a kind of rigor around the analytical work that we do and connects them to very hard issues, which is figuring out what the real-world problem actually is. It’s not mushy to get the formulation of the analytics problem done correctly, and there are some specific techniques and skills that one has to do that involve interaction with people and organizations. Some might think that’s “soft,” but only in the sense that we’re interacting with human beings.

Peter Horner (horner@lionhrtpub.com) is the editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazines. A much shorter version of this article appeared in Analytics.