Decision Management: Hardening Soft Skills and the Introvert’s Conundrum

Blog posting from INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) Conference on Business Analytics April 2013 in San Antonio, Texas

Part of the pleasure, and indeed a good part of the value, of attending a professional conference such INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) is the informal discussions and exchanges that occur between, during, and after the formal proceedings.  Conversations begin to suggest dominant themes, hopes, and concerns for a discipline.

A major theme I encountered at the INFORMS Business Analytics Conference in April 2013 in San Antonio, Texas, crossing between sessions and discussions, is a vigorous interest in developing soft-skills on the part of business analytics practitioners.  In sessions, conversations, and INFORMS scope, soft skills are taking an increasingly central role.  Qualifying for INFORMS Business Analytics CAP certification requires an independent soft skill reference and the exam addresses organizational topics explicitly.  INFORMS offers focused soft skill training.   Little surprise here, perhaps: this growing interest signifies a natural desire to carry the message and power of business analytics (BA) deeper into the business by improving the ability to frame and communicate the goals and value of analytics.

INFORMS Business Analytics Conference (May 2013 San Antonio, Texas)

INFORMS Business Analytics Conference (May 2013 San Antonio, Texas)

However, this is also partially fear-based: with the intense spotlight on BA, there is a concern that the discipline will ‘trip and fall flat’ during its ‘scheduled centerpiece dance routine’, so to speak.  Those from an IT background are quite aware of, and have seen (many times), the codified Gartner Hype Cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle), which traces the Cassandra-like cyclical building of expectations surrounding a ‘hot topic’ into a ‘Peak of inflated expectations’, after which there is the inevitable plunge into the dreaded ‘Trough of disillusionment’.

With analytics being branded front-row and center by consulting and software firms alike, many experienced practitioners have an uneasy giddiness, a sense that the ‘good times’ run the risk of ‘wheeling dizzily into a karma-driven comeuppance’, and expecting the inevitable subsequent grim, driving hangover of disappointment and regret.

The panacea of choice, if one is to follow conversations and themes during the conference, is to brush-up on one’s soft-skills, the goal being to make a concerted attempt to better frame and communicate the position and value of the BA discipline within modern enterprise.  Several associated challenges abound, the first of which being (although I lack formal data), a likely preponderance of ‘Introvert’, ‘Intuiting’, ‘Thinking’, and ‘Judging’ personality types on the Myers-Briggs scale, or some combination of these tendencies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator#Four_dichotomies).  In other words, those who gravitate towards analytics as a discipline may not always be the most extroverted or even fluid in the soft skills department.

The upshot, for those new to the Meyers-Briggs tool, and apologies for the broad generalization, is that many of us ‘analytics heads’ tend individually to be more in the ‘Mr. Spock’ category, preferring to devise detailed architectures, strategies, and solutions via well-considered research, testing, and planning, rather, as with Captain Kirk, beaming down to the unknown planet and getting into fist fights at the drop of a hat.

All is not lost, though, as the I-N-T-J and variant Meyers-Briggs types also can grow into central communication and leadership roles in organizations, with Winston Churchill and Carl Jung being luminaries in the ‘master architect’ typology.  Indeed it is a common misperception that introverts shy from communication and leadership.  Rather, introverts engage as leaders and communicate in different ways, preferring to plan, gather data, research, consider closely, and deliberate in private before leaping into the fray.  Such an approach does not fit in all organizations, but the good news is that the interest in analytics suggests an increased desire to consider, experiment, and plan more intensively, rather than to take the cowboy shoot-point-and-aim approach.  Evidence-based management airs on the side of pointy-headed planners and considered thinkers, as long as they can evidence results and ROI.

In the way of advice for building soft skills, an introvert is likely to plan out a concerted skill-building approach, rather than to simply start attending random cocktail parties in the hopes of amplifying one’s ‘patter quotient’.  Here, a program of attempting public speaking (i.e. Toastmasters, volunteering to present at conferences) would be a good approach.  Similarly learning more about group and interpersonal communication theory would be helpful (i.e. reflective communications, stakeholder interest and influence analysis, small group dynamics, multi-criteria analysis).

Aristotles’ ‘Art of Rhetoric’ would likely be of interest to many analytics folks, as, no surprise, the Aristotelian approach to this ‘soft subject’ is quite structured and methodical.  Having recently taught some courses at the university level recently, I can recommend getting actively involved in teaching and training.  It certainly forces you to work on your ability to engage and hold interest levels, especially, as with me, if you are faced with the daunting task of teaching ‘boring’ (on the face of it) statistics and economics to a large group of  18 year old undergraduates, constantly glued to their smartphone texts, MacBook, and Facebook feed.

Finally, I encourage analytics practitioners to consider a proposition:  organizations are, from a certain perspective, large, flawed, frustrating decision making computers.  Group communications and politics, all driven by soft skills, are the main ‘communication bus’ driving signals, however imperfectly, across and between decision making stakeholders in any organization.  BA is aware of stakeholder mapping, RACI diagrams, organizational charts and similar artifacts for understanding organizations.  However, the last decade has seen a rapid advance in social sciences methodologies in the ability to analyze and characterize organizations at deeper levels.  Network analysis, multi-criteria analysis, satisficing, game theory, and multi-agent simulations are all methods used in the organizational business research toolkit to better understand the deep-level mechanisms of organizational decision making.

The upshot here is that using the tools of analytics to better understand organizational decision making and political coalition dynamics as a structured social phenomenon may be an excellent ‘on ramp’ for an introvert profile BA to start building better savvy on soft skill themes.  For instance, understanding organizational conflict as a network communication challenge, often based upon conflicting incentives and lack of information sharing, may be a good way to approach organizational problem solving. Is there a gatekeeper impeding the flow of information?  Do two stakeholder groups simply not talk enough?  Are two groups simply not incentivized to reach common ground in terms of decision making?

Such frameworks are comfortable territory: suddenly the thought of hosting an inter-departmental analytics strategy ‘brown bag’ session in your company seems less ‘soft’, and more a probabilistic prescription to encourage network coordination within the organization.  Likewise, considering departmental conflict as a nonlinear optimization problem or multi-criteria satisficing problem provides a structure to thinking about entrenched organizational politics.  Whereas many millions of professionals go to work ‘fed-up’ with political games in their organization, seeing it as a computational challenge may bring new perspectives and energy…

Organizational social networks are immensely powerful; we often fail to understand or even perceive patterns and logic in network dynamics, being constrained as we are into our narrow individual ‘agent’ perspectives.  By applying analytics methods and metaphors to our consideration of soft skill challenges within organizations, we can better prepare ourselves as BA advocates and even leaders in the organizations we inhabit.

For more on this topic, please see my analytics blog at:  www.sctr7.com

For more information on SARK7 Analytics Consulting:  www.sark7.com

 

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About SARK7

Scott Allen Mongeau (SARK7) is an INFORMS Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) and a Data Scientist in the Cybersecurity business unit at SAS Institute. Scott has over 20 years of experience in project-focused analytics functions in a range of industries, including IT, biotech, pharma, materials, insurance, law enforcement, financial services, and start-ups. Scott is a part-time PhD (ABD) researcher at Nyenrode Business University. He holds a Global Executive MBA (OneMBA) and Masters in Financial Management from Erasmus Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). He has a Certificate in Finance from University of California at Berkeley Extension, a MA in Communication from the University of Texas at Austin, and a Graduate Degree (GD) in Applied Information Systems Management from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). He holds a BPhil from Miami University of Ohio. Having lived and worked in a number of countries, Scott is a dual American (native) and Dutch citizen. He may be contacted at: webmaster@sark7.com All posts are copyright © 2015 SARK7 All external materials utilized imply no ownership rights and are presented purely for educational purposes.

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