SAS Global Forum 2015: How data-oriented companies are closing the analytics skills gap

“Technology is no longer the main barrier to creating business value from data: The bigger barrier is a shortage of appropriate skills,” according a new global study from MIT Sloan Management Review and SAS.

Surprisingly, however, the study finds many companies have yet to develop an effective talent strategy – they are not doing anything different to attract new data workers.

Only one in five organisations has changed its approach to attracting and retaining analytics talent, according to the study The Talent Dividend, released at the ongoing SAS Global Forum in Dallas, Texas.

Now in its fifth year, the study suggests that companies strongest in analytics are pursuing many paths simultaneously to build and maintain a strong corporate analytics skillset. This year’s report was based on insights from 2,719 respondents including MIT alumni and SAS clients from across the globe.

These companies give preference to people with analytical skills when hiring and promoting, develop analytical skills through formal training, and integrate new talent with more traditional data workers.

The study notes companies that have a “data scientist” role in their organisations are more than twice as likely to clearly prioritise data projects, and two-and-a-half times as likely to have a formal data strategy, according to the study.

“Taken together, the human resource practices of analytically mature companies have all the hallmarks of a plan,” says David Kiron, executive editor for MIT Sloan Management Review and one of the authors of the report. “Companies that are less successful with analytics tend not to have a plan; their approach to analytics talent is scattered and inconsistent.”

Kiron co-authored the report with Sam Ransbotham, associate professor in the information systems department, Carroll School of Management at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and Pamela Kirk Prentice, chief research officer at SAS.

“Talent is clearly a key driver in innovating and gaining a competitive advantage with analytics,” says Prentice. “Analytical innovators are four times more likely than the analytically challenged to believe they have the right talent in place.”

Integrating new talent is a difficult but vital piece of the effort to gain value from analytics workers.

Half of the survey respondents (50 per cent) cite turning analytical insights into business actions a top analytics challenge. Difficulty managing the vast amounts of ever-increasing data from multiple sources is also an issue. Meanwhile, four in 10 (43 per cent) companies report their lack of appropriate analytical skills as a key challenge.

A solid talent plan

The study recommends that companies seeking to build their talent bench follow these four strategies:

Tap internal talent: A big advantage of developing analytics skills among current employees is that they already know the business. This makes a big difference when communicating analytical insights to end-users, or the “ast mile” problem in analytics. To secure this connection, some companies, consultants and universities are training data analysts and data scientists in the art of storytelling.

Focus on talent integration, not infusion:Integrating new talent is a difficult but vital piece of the effort to gain value from analytics workers.

Set up a buddy system, build complementary teams: The report says data scientists can be paired with field sales representatives to help focus their analytical efforts. They can also work with traditional analysts.

Build a common core: Make sure that you enhance the ability to consume analytical insights across the entire organisation.

The survey shows organisations are already addressing this issue. It finds organisations are doing more to train existing managers to become more analytical (49 per cent) than to train analytics professionals to better understand their business (34 per cent).

Divina Paredes is attending the SAS Global Forum in Dallas, Texas as a guest of SAS.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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