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Self-serve analytics systems allow business users to wear analyst hat

Data visualization and self-service analytics systems are allowing businesses to cut out the data scientist and put analysis on business users.

The question of how to get statisticians and business teams working together productively has long plagued the implementation of analytics systems. But with simplified tools becoming more common, that question is starting to become moot, as line-of-business experts are able to simultaneously wear the analyst hat.

Greg Bucko, manager of customer insights at Southern States Cooperative, was hired two years ago to head up the company's analytics initiatives, shortly after it had implemented desktop-based analytics from Alteryx. But Bucko said that even though the agricultural services and products company was still in the "Stone Age" when it came to data-driven decision making, Southern States did not hire new analysts. Instead, it trained users from business teams.

I like people who are creative thinkers and problem solvers rather than just an analyst. I'd hire an artist if I could.

Greg Bucko, manager of customer insights, Southern States Cooperative

"I like people who are creative thinkers and problem solvers rather than just an analyst. I'd hire an artist if I could," Bucko said.

He credits his ability to do this to the usability of the system, which does not require any command-line coding like some older analytic systems. Instead, following a bit of training, users with relatively little computer savvy can derive data-driven insights that they can use in the course of their work. In fact, Bucko said he does not have a master's-level statistician on his staff at the moment, and isn't expecting to hire one.

Southern States is on the leading edge of a trend toward visualization and self-service in analytics. Gone are the days when someone in the finance or marketing department would have to ask IT for analysis. Now there are analytics tools that allow business users to do it themselves.

And businesses are investing heavily. The latest Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms stated that self-service data discovery tools are organizations' top buying priorities for 2014.

Currently, Southern States uses its analytics tool to build predictive models for identifying direct mailer opportunities, understanding customer behavior and deciding the best locations for new stores. Through better targeting, the company was able to reduce the number of catalogues it mailed by 74% while doubling the response rate. The analytics system allows it to develop models and reuse them over and over, unlike earlier Excel-based analytic projects that required workers to start every analysis from the beginning.

"In the past you had to do that exercise again and figure out what you had done again," Bucko said. "There wasn't a lot of analytic muscle here at the time."

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Southern States was able to go from a business that based very few decisions on data analysis to a more data-driven enterprise in just two years, in part because it benefited from leadership that was interested in the power of analytics. As for the users, Bucko said the company has encountered resistance to the new tool. But he and his team are working to show business users how data-driven decision making can actually make their jobs easier.

"That requires us to not change someone's mind about their process, [but instead] it's just about saying, 'Wouldn't it be easier to push this button?'" he said.

The process is made easier by the fact that it's mainly businesspeople trying to convince other businesspeople, rather than relying on statisticians to sell the service, Bucko said. The evangelists speak the same language as the congregation.

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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