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Data storytelling skills get key role in analytics process

People with good data storytelling skills are becoming big contributors to the data analytics process in organizations looking to make info more understandable to business execs.

One of the most important people on the data analytics team that Pamela Peele manages isn't a data scientist or an analyst at all. She's a former journalist whose job is to employ data storytelling techniques to help communicate the team's analytical findings in a way that corporate executives and business managers can easily understand.

A journalist or other communications expert with strong storytelling skills "should be one of the persons you hire" for an analytics team, said Peele, chief analytics officer at healthcare system UPMC's insurance services division in Pittsburgh. "People are accustomed to consuming information and knowledge in ways that professional journalists are trained to serve it up."

Effective data visualization and storytelling can also increase the reach of data analysis results in an organization, Peele said during a presentation at the Strata + Hadoop World 2015 conference in San Jose, Calif. For example, one of the things the journalist did after joining the team at UPMC was to give a series of blandly titled "Clinical Process Reports" a more engaging name: "Program Vital Signs." That step and other improvements to the reports helped drive broader usage of them, according to Peele, who tracks distribution of the documents electronically and gets insight into how her team's findings are influencing business processes and strategies during meetings with other C-level executives.

In a keynote speech at the 2015 TDWI Executive Summit in Las Vegas, consultant, author and Babson College professor Tom Davenport similarly recommended hiring "translators who can tell stories with data."

Also at the TDWI event, Mike Lampa, managing director of consultancy Archipelago Information Strategies, pointed to "data journalists" who combine analytics and communication skills as a must for analytics teams looking to explain their algorithms and predictive models to business execs. "The key," Lampa said, "is transposing the complex mathematical minutiae into a business story."

Andrew Storey, vice president of decision sciences at Toronto-based Scotiabank, hasn't hired workers specifically for their ability to communicate with the financial services company's business users. But Storey said he has tapped a couple of his analysts who are better at that than others to lead the process of explaining analytics approaches and results.

What you definitely don't want, Peele said, is to end up with data scientists patting themselves on the back for producing analytics results that no one else looks at or uses because of a lack of data storytelling skills. "We have to influence the organization," she noted. "Otherwise, we have to go home."

Craig Stedman is executive editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at [email protected], and follow us on Twitter: @BizAnalyticsTT.

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