What coaching a new driver and developing an analytics culture have in common

By Kimberly Nevala, Best Practices, SAS

Big data has created a renewed interest and focus on analytics. But the best analytic tools are moot if they sit idle or are applied in a way that does not improve business outcomes. Companies struggling to bring analytics from the backroom to the board room must take a broader view.

What has become apparent is that analytic prowess is as much, if not more, a function of mindset and approach as access to tools and data. Very often, visionaries and experienced experts underestimate the effort, time and perseverance required to help others make the turn. I was reminded of the fundamental sticking point during a recent inaugural foray into the realm of driving instruction.

My 15-year-old niece asked me to take her driving. After observing my ride-along with her recently licensed sister, she determined I had the makings of a great driving instructor. Or at least, calmer nerves than Mom or Dad. I agreed. Never mind that the car wasn’t mine, the insurance wasn’t mine, the mortal danger – OK that was mine. But I digress.

Confident in my cool head, ability to communicate and driving skills, I wasn’t concerned. However, transferring my knowledge proved harder than expected.

As we set out, I found myself calling out directions and questions at breakneck speed:

"Check the mirrors: rear-view, right, left, right again. Blind spot? Blinker! Engage the clutch. Let up on the gas. Brake! Check the speed limit. How fast is the driver in front of you going? Behind you. Next to you. Did you check the mirror? "

All due credit to my niece, she’s a natural. Even so, it quickly became apparent that a more deliberate approach was required. I’ve driven so long some actions have become instinctual. It didn’t even occur to me to mention them until the point at which – or even after – it was needed. After all, wasn’t it obvious? And although the point of the exercise, and the destination of our first outing was clear to me, it wasn’t clear to my niece.


What does this have to do with developing an analytic culture?

Whether you’re a driving instructor or an analytic visionary, a few lessons apply when shepherding in a new way of thinking:

  • Confidence is contagious. So is fear.
  • Never assume the other guy knows what you are talking about – or why it matters.
  • It’s only obvious to you. You know what needs to happen next. You’ve done it, or at least thought through the steps already. They haven’t.
  • You will have to repeat yourself. It’s not you and it’s not them. It’s just how we learn.
  • Context matters.
  • You must speak their language before they can speak yours.
  • Fundamentals first. It’s all important, but it’s not all immediately required.
  • Less is more. Too much input too fast leads to a crash.

In the case of our driving lesson, we quickly homed in on the essentials. Thirty minutes making left-hand turns to circle the block. Then right. Then mixing things up. Nothing fancy: start, stop and turn. Minimal traffic and distractions. And rather than expecting the newbie to remember the steps, I assumed she wouldn’t. Just-in-time prompts did the trick. Ninety minutes later, no dings, a calm instructor and a glowing-with-pride driver, we headed home. Progress! Next up? The highway.

Developing the awareness, behaviors and skills to drive, or operate analytically, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a plan, patience and practice. Lots of practice. As a newly minted chief analytics officer with some big wins under his belt observed: “Most of my time is spent on change management. I haven’t seen or discussed a model in months.” That’s exactly how it should be.

Kimberly Nevala is the Director of Business Strategies for SAS Best Practices, responsible for industry education, key client strategies and market analysis in the areas of business intelligence and analytics, data governance and master data management. She has more than 15 years of experience advising clients on the development and implementation of strategic customer and data management programs and managing mission-critical projects.


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