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May 21, 2014

10 tips for making analytics converts out of your colleagues

From the Analytically Speaking panel discussion this morning -- a live webcast I watched with hundreds of other people -- I picked up a multitude of strategies for helping co-workers, managers and executives become comfortable with using analytics to inform decision-making. Here are 10 of my favorite tips from that discussion:

  1. Start telling stories, Sameer Vittal of GE Energy said. You may know how to talk p-values and logistic regression, but the best approach is to use the data to tell stories that have an emotional component. “People who you think would be defensive, won’t be.”
  2. Show concretely what analytics can do for your business, advised Vicki Barbur of Cardinal Health. She gave an example of solving the problem of variability in a process. “It was very demonstrable where the variability was coming from.” She could point to the data, causes and procedures, and that was a turning point in her journey in analytics and statistics. “It brought the naysayers on board.”
  3. It’s the visuals, Don Lifke of Sandia National Labs said. “If you really want to sell them [on the value of analytics], it has to be about the visual.” Don’t show them a table of numbers; show a graphic. Gordon Linoff of Data Miners Inc., explained the power of visuals this way: If your managers see a table of numbers, they will think about the numbers. If you show them a graphic, they may think of solutions, improvements and innovative ideas.
  4. It’s OK to start with Microsoft Excel, panelists agreed. “It’s a bridge to the future,” Barbur said. Let your colleagues become comfortable with the data using Excel, and then they can move to an analytics tool like JMP. “Spreadsheets can be a very powerful ally. People will use what they are familiar with. Use Excel as a starting point,” Vittal said. Linoff added: “Spreadsheets can’t do everything, and when they can’t, bring in another tool.”
  5. Make your data visualizations effective, they said. Colors are linked to emotions, Vittal noted, so be sure to use the right colors. Avoid inconsistency in the use of colors across a series of graphs, Linoff added. Consider your audience and tailor your data visualization to that audience, Barbur said. Watch out for misleading data visualization, such as the misuse of area in a visualization of geographic data, Lifke said.
  6. Users groups can speed the spread of analytics. “We created our own users group [at Cardinal Health]. It lets us talk openly about our projects,” Barbur said. Plus, it brings together colleagues in different divisions and at different sites around the world.
  7. Reward analytic success. The Cardinal Health JMP Users Group gives a quarterly award -- a prize and a plaque -- to a group member who used analytics to improve the business.
  8. Rely on examples. To explain what predictive modeling is to someone with a business background, share an example that is meaningful to that person. For instance, tell him or her: If you knew what type of message you should communicate to customers, you would increase response rates by a certain percent -- that’s what predictive modeling can do.
  9. Take advantage of dynamic visualizations, Lifke advised. Use the interactive Prediction Profiler in JMP to show the power of statistical modeling. “You move one variable, and the output changes.”
  10. Be respectful and helpful. Engineers should recognize that colleagues with MBAs just have taken a different path, not an inferior one, Vittal said. On the business side, colleagues have their own pressures, so your approach should be, “What can I do to make your job easier?” It should not be to show who’s the smartest person in the room. Give them the tools -- graphs for PowerPoints, bubble plots -- to thrive. “Then they become your greatest advocates.”
  11. What works for you? How do you make your colleagues into analytic converts?

    And if you missed the live webcast today, don’t worry -- we’ll have a recording of it on our website soon. Meanwhile, check out the upcoming webcasts in the Analytically Speaking series.

    Update on May 23, 2012: The recording of this webcast is now available for viewing on demand.