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Insider insights from a data-driven SAS executive
Analytics culture change starts at the top
By Kimberly Nevala, SAS Best Practices Group
Carl Farrell is no stranger to the business benefits of analytics. In this insider interview, Farrell – the Executive Vice President of SAS Americas and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) – shares how adopting SAS® Visual Analytics within his own organization improved both sales strategy and management.
As his story shows, even the savviest executive may have something to learn about creating a culture that’s not only data-aware, but data-driven.
How did your journey to becoming a more data-driven executive start?
Farrell: We run quarterly business unit (BU) reviews in which we mathematically measure pertinent aspects of the business. Each review took two to three hours, so there wasn’t time to go too deep. Each BU was also required to prepare its own data, which took about a week. The data was then reported in PowerPoint.
It was a very set process, as I’m set in my ways. My philosophy is that unless you have something better, if it works, leave it alone. One day, two of my managers came into their review without the standard spreadsheets and charts. Instead, they presented their data using visual analytics dashboards.
You can’t use a piece of technology without a change in the corresponding process. My own thought process had to be different.
Executive Vice President
What was your initial reaction?
The review didn’t go very well at all. The flow I was used to just wasn’t there. The way the information was presented didn’t align with the way my brain had worked for the last eight years. I was frustrated because I had only so much time and wanted a result. I gave the guys a hard time so everyone walked away frustrated.
How did you overcome your own resistance?
I took a step back and reflected. You can’t use a piece of technology without a change in the corresponding process. My own thought process had to be different. So I took some time and really thought about what I was looking for. Why was I doing BU reviews? What was I trying to get out of them? I then went back to the team and reviewed my objectives. Together we laid out a data flow that aligned with how I thought about the business.
How long did the initial design process take?
The process took two to three months to refine. Today I have two dashboards with 10 individual tabs. These same data sets are pushed out to my VPs and their teams, who have added onto them for their own use.
How did you engage your leadership teams in the process? What was their reaction?
It was not as hard as I originally thought. I brought my leadership team together and basically demonstrated the flow by which I was reviewing their business. They immediately jumped on board: More information was available than ever before, and there was no work getting there! We could follow the data in real time and get answers quickly. We were also linking data in a manner not previously possible. For example, sales forecasts change every two weeks. Today, we are able to see what product we expected to sell and our position relative to both our product and pure revenue targets as soon as the forecast changes. Previously, calculating this information was labor intensive and almost immediately out of date. So we only looked at it a few times a year.
This collaborative approach allowed us to quickly alter the content and workflows together with the development team. The proactive nature of this approach to managing our business could also be seen as each of my VPs thought of and shared different ways to use the tool.
What other mechanisms did you use to enable your management teams?
We created a sales management handbook to drive management consistency from Canada to France to Belgium or the US. Today, operational variations can be quickly seen in the results. We are then able to ask the question: Is this the result of process differences? Is the data wrong? Collaboratively coaching sales management was crucial.
How important was it for you, as an executive, to also model new behaviors?
It’s critical. For me, enforcing the process started with meeting with a PC only. Never a piece of paper. Regardless of whether you are in EMEA or America, we plug in and go. The ability to clearly provide a list of what needs to be done and drive consistency in approach was crucial. In other words, not allowing folks to work however they wanted to.
How has being data-driven changed the conversation with your management teams?
Reviews today are very different. We’ve eliminated five days of data prep. There is no paper involved, and a review can take as little as an hour. We go deeper and broader in a more predictive manner than ever before. Not to mention anyone can look at the data at any time.
The concept is still evolving. Today I don’t do a lot of preparation before a review. In fact, I deliberately don’t look at the data. Instead I wait to collaboratively ask questions about the business with the team. If I do this by myself, I don’t have the ability to ask my questions or have the context for the data. If we discuss together we all gain a better understanding of what the data is telling us. We’re learning about the business together.
The net result is, I’m more comfortable that I know what the hell is going on when we are thinking together rather than doing so independently. And my leaders gain more understanding about what is going on in their business as well.
This concept came from a session I attended at the Procter & Gamble Goldmine 2013 conference. They showcased a management review process utilizing a room full of screens. Today, we’ve built a center in Canada to flow through the business: showing both the process and the context. From there, [relevant parties] can interactively ask questions and follow the business together. This is a great test case which we are using with our customers and will expand if it drives results.
What impact has a data-driven approach had on overall business performance?
Today we spend more time looking at our business versus assembling the data. As a result, we know our business much better. Forecasting accuracy has gone up because the data is there. Visualizing the data properly also allows me to focus on areas not doing a good job. I can spot holes in the pipeline or evaluate the results of marketing activities in seconds. We’re evolving to a standard where we focus only on BU where there are concerns. I haven’t done reviews with certain BUs that are performing well in the last two quarters.
So your ability to strategize and plan has also improved?
SAS is a multibillion-dollar business: Every BU is a large business in and of itself. Although we’re a private company, we want to run like a public company and be predictable in our results. Using a data-driven approach, we can take the business to another level.
As an offshoot of this work, we’re creating a global sales performance office. The sales performance office will help a BU understand key metrics and ensure VPs are executing proactively. In addition, the sales performance office will team up with their business partners to identify new opportunities to drive the business forward.
What has been the most surprising barrier or outcome on this journey thus far?
Until you take a step back, you don’t realize how resistant you are to change. I preach change to our clients every day, but couldn’t do it myself. There is a level of effort required; you have to think it through.
Now I’m addicted [to the data]. The first thing I did when I took over a new region was to have the data put in my dashboard. As a result, I was able to answer new questions from my boss regarding that region very quickly. We’re solving for different problems now. Like how do I take the data with me everywhere? Including on an airplane. It’s not like a piece of paper.
Single most important consideration for fellow executives starting down the same path?
Don’t just replicate what you have – which is where I started. Instead, take a step back and consider how to enhance your existing business. How can you use technology to definitively be and do better? Don’t just replace A with B. Our capabilities today far exceed what came before. If I had forced a wholesale replacement of the former environment, we wouldn’t be reaping the same benefits.
Other cautionary notes?
Don’t go too far. It is very easy to get too deep. Data can’t become everything or be the only view of the business. A balanced approach that considers multiple elements: human, business, data and so on is critical.
How do you, a seasoned sales executive, strike a balance between “gut feel” and a purely data-driven approach?
I believe in instinct and gut feel, but it’s not A or B. I look at the data and jump down a path based on my instinct and experience. So I look at a trend, and experience tells me this is typical of a situation where people are doing X [standard tricks of the trade]. Eight out of 10 times I’m right, but the data gets me to the answer faster. Which doesn’t mean I’m using the data to justify my assumption: If I’m wrong, we look somewhere else. But I still get to the bottom line faster.
Final thoughts on the journey to date and where you are going next?
To outpace a market that is growing quite quickly, we have to be a leaner, meaner, stronger company. Which means we have to be very focused in our approach to the market. These insights allow us to very quickly de-focus on things not affecting the future. Today, we are proactively spotting and responding to changes faster than ever. Being able to identify achievable opportunities and move the needle even a few points means millions of dollars in revenue.
I’m also very proud that we’re doing a good job with our own software. I’m a critical user – whether the issue is functionality or network pererformance. We are also figuring out how to design our dashboards efficiently. In that sense, we are behaving like a true SAS customer.
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.
- Download Kimberly's paper, Anatomy of an Analytic Enterprise, to learn more about building an analytic culture in your organization.