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Strategies for finding analytics skills, despite the shortage

The shortage of skilled analytics professionals is well documented, but SAS conference attendees said businesses that know where to look can find, or develop, the skills they need.

A lot has been written about the ongoing shortage of workers with basic statistics and data analytics skills, which has left businesses that are looking to become more data-driven scrambling to find talent. But at SAS Institute Inc.'s 2014 Premier Business Leadership Series conference in Las Vegas, attendees said finding the right people may not be as hard as it seems for organizations that know what to look for -- and where to look.

For example, Matt Fabian, director of customer analytics at Bank of Montreal, said in an interview that he was able to recruit some of the members of a centralized analytics team he started building two years ago from the bank's business units. Five years ago, individual business units began developing their own analytics capabilities, Fabian said. When the bank's executive team decided it was time to focus the entire company on data-driven decision making, he knew he could find people he needed within those business units.

Fabian added that staffing up internally has a huge advantage over hiring from outside because existing employees already have line-of-business knowledge, which is as important as basic analytics skills. "To find the people who have the analytics background but apply it -- that's where we've been focused," he said. "It's not the analytic skill set we're looking for. It's the 'so what.'"

Of course, managers will have to handle potentially delicate political issues if they decide to take workers out of lines of business to build a centralized analytics team. Fabian said this was one of the most difficult parts of creating his team. But he said once the initial resistance wears off and people start seeing how a centralized team can benefit the entire enterprise, they are more likely to get on board.

School your workers in analytics

Businesses that don't have that kind of in-house expertise to tap can try to foster it by encouraging analytically inclined employees to develop the necessary skills. One relatively quick and easy way to do so is through massive open online courses (MOOCs), said Jill Dyché, vice president of best practices at SAS. She said a lot of businesses are looking at using MOOCs, which offer Web-based instruction to large numbers of students, to help employees sharpen their data skills.

These courses can offer an affordable -- often free -- but still high-quality path for people from more general business backgrounds to deepen their understanding of data analysis, according to Dyché. Workers with characteristics like curiosity and facility with numbers are good candidates to take such courses. "MOOCs can be the wave of the future," she said. "Companies are embracing it."

Another possible approach that businesses can try is looking for outside talent in unexpected places. Barbara Wixom, a researcher at MIT's Center for Information Systems Research, said she encourages students in majors like marketing and management to do data-focused research projects to help build their analytics skills.

Marketing takes an analytical turn

Similarly, Terri Albert, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, said she teaches students that once they're working in the real world, they must be prepared to bring data to every business meeting to back up their assertions.

Albert said she believes more college-level marketing programs will soon start incorporating data analysis as a central part of the standard curriculum. Some business schools are already doing so: For one, Northwestern's marketing department offers a concentration in data analysis.

"I would say it would all come together," she said. "That evolution would not surprise me."

Whether that could help resolve the shortage of skilled analytics professionals remains to be seen. But if the trend continues, business schools may one day produce as much analytics talent as statistics or computer science programs do.

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at eburns@techtarget.com and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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Great article. Organizations should invest in training their personnel: it increases employee retention and experience. Another great place to recruit is in data-centric hackathons.