How to create your own organizational think tank

7 tips for building a team of analysts who will transform your business

Does your analytics team act as a service provider, answering one-off questions as needed? Or is your team more of a consultancy, getting pulled in to solve larger problems, but often after the fact? Would you like to be more strategic instead, helping to drive business decisions and determine the future of the organization?

According to recent research from SAS, 27 percent of analytics teams globally act as service providers, 38 percent act as consultants and 25 percent act as business drivers. How can your team become more of a business driver? How can you evolve to become more of an organizational think tank?

Follow these seven tips from Parinaz Vahabzadeh, Vice President of Global Customer Intelligence and Advanced Analytics at Coach, and Lori Bieda, Executive Lead of Americas Customer Intelligence at SAS. They shared their thoughts earlier this week at the National Retail Federation conference in New York.

The wall between the analytics team and the business goes away very naturally when you’re just equal experts trying to solve a problem.

Parinaz Vahabzadeh
Vice President of Global Customer Intelligence and Advanced Analytics

  1. Hire outside your industry
    “I’ve always been an advocate of drawing talent from multiple practices,” says Vahabzadeh. “Some of the best talent we’ve found has come from the pharmaceuticals industry or the technology sector. We have enough institutional DNA to teach retail, but a great analytical mind is such an asset that it’s important to think differently about how to attract and develop that talent.”

    Bieda has found success in recruiting analysts out of school and then sending them through a “business university” training program. “We taught them the business at an aggregate level so they had some context looking at the data, and they could look at data with a business driver mindset.”
  2. Graduate from Excel
    “’You’re ready to graduate from Excel’ is a phrase we use at Coach,” says Vahabzadeh. “It’s part of mainstreaming advanced analytics into the organization. When you are as data-driven as we are, the next evolution for us is to integrate that into multiple business problems across multiple functions. We are bringing together different silos of data and not only managing that information but using it to make decisions.”
  3. Develop a centralized analytics team
    Historically, retailers have had analytical roles spread throughout the organization, from market research and customer intelligence to inventory planning and behavioral analysis teams. Pulling them together into a virtual team can help analysts work more strategically towards business goals. “My centralized analytics team reports to the chief strategy officer, who is also head of marketing,” says Vahabzadeh.

    “This gets us involved up front in discussions about the key imperatives of the company, so the analytics thread is discussed first, not as an afterthought for big decisions.” According to recent research from SAS, 48 percent of retail analytics teams are centralized, 28 percent are decentralized, and 18 percent are hybrid. Bieda says retailers who are “competing on analytics” are most likely to have centralized teams.
  4. Give analysts challenging work
    What do analysts want? Decent salaries, yes. Clean data, sure. But perhaps more importantly, says, Vahabzadeh, analysts want to solve difficult problems, and they want to know they’re making a difference in their organizations.

    “I work with a very talented team of analysts. Everyone wants to work on interesting problems and have their work be valued and implemented. Getting involvement from the C-suite to support the work they’re doing is the best technique I’ve seen.”
  5. Break down the walls that divide IT and the business
    “The wall between analytics and business has to go away,” says Vahabzadeh. “Even that dialogue of them being separate has to go away. We sit with our information systems team and we are joined with them at the hip.” She encourages analysts to understand technology better and encourages the technologists to learn more about analytics. “The wall between the analytics team and the business goes away very naturally when you’re just equal experts trying to solve a problem.”
  6. Take a leading role in data governance and information distribution
    “One of most significant changes I’ve seen in last few years is that analytics is playing an increasing role in the governance of data,” says Vahabzadeh. “Connecting a thread between customers and their behavior and the data around that is becoming exponentially more complex. Analysts should play more of an architectural role in fitting all the pieces together.”

    “One of other shifts we see is an increased role in making sure analytics is on demand and enterprisewide. Playing a leadership role in how this data fits into the pipes of the organization is vital. There is a disruptive shift occurring in the way analytics is integrated into an organization.”
  7. Invest in change management
    “Analytics has to be sold and translated for the business,” says Vahabzadeh. Bieda agrees: “There is an elegance beyond just sharing data, and there is a lot of humility involved in figuring out how to persuade with data. You have to be mindful of the complexity of rolling analytics out to field.”

    In fact, Bieda has seen the best results not from the best models, but from the teams that have taken the time to go from office to office and explain to business users what’s behind the data.

    Coaching new analysts and showing them how decisions were made in the past can be useful too, says Bieda. “Walk them through a previous scenario and explain, ‘here’s how we presented the facts, here’s where we had resistance, etc.’”


Is it worth the effort to take these steps in your organization? Of course – and here’s why: “Put simply analytics works,” says Vahabzadeh. “Retailers have been in the analytics space for a while, but now is the next evolution. We are moving from answering questions about the past to answering questions about the future. We’re moving from knowing that something works to understanding why it works. The footprint of analytics is growing, and this leads to an increasing need to invest in the area and in the team.”


Team of analysts

More Insights