Seth Godin claims that we live in an age of Linchpins: empowered employees going above and beyond the factory-work of the past to produce works of artistic excellence. As someone who spent 10 years producing strategic insights through analytics, I find that today’s companies want analytical factory workers, not linchpins.
In the past 6 months I’ve met many managers and analysts from different industries, all stuck in a state of learned helplessness. Each one tells the same story – they have given up in their their attempts to generate insights. They just produce the numbers and reports the executives and clients want in exchange for a paycheck.
How is it that, in the midst of the golden age of analytics, did analysts end up in a collective state of learned helplessness?
The Analyst’s Perspective
Analysts are required to be mindless factory workers, producing models and metrics through productionalized methods and processes, filling in predetermined reporting templates. These reports are then automatically published through Business “Intelligence” systems, or into Excel, and e-mailed to executives, with a few uncreative bullet points, placed there by a non-analytical manager, masquerading as analysis.
I can already hear you clicking away from this blog as I hit that nerve of disbelief. What I just described is what many analysts suffer through in exchange for a paycheck. This is what recruiters and hiring managers are looking for. Don’t believe me? Search through the job postings on LinkedIn. As of May 1, 2011, “analytics process” brings up 985 job postings. At the same time, “analytics creativity” bring up 179. The former reflects the dominance of analytical positions requiring mindless automatons and factory workers. The latter reflects the very few positions where analysts have the autonomy and control to truly analyze data and provide insights – not reports.
In some of the discussions in the analytics and research LinkedIn groups, many analysts complained about the absence of opportunities to provide creative, strategic analytics and insights to companies and clients. Managers turned the conversation around to the tried and true formula of blaming the analysts themselves for failing to have the talent and education that companies allegedly require. Blaming the analyst doesn’t fix the fact that these companies want, and advertise for, factory workers.
The Executive’s Perspective
It’s also easy to blame companies for creating the roles and situations that result in factory work and reports instead of analytical insights. It’s harder to ask the question of why these process-obsessed roles exist, given that executives and companies say they want creative and strategic analytical insights and recommendations.
The reality is that what executives really want is power. There are a number of ways of defining power, and one of those definitions includes knowledge or information.
Traditional management structures are hierarchical and command-and-control in nature. Analysts report to a Director or Manager, who in turn reports to a Director or Vice President, and so on. Even within matrixed organizations, we still have someone we report to, with the positional power to make or break our careers through a performance review or pink slip.
Analysts have a unique form of power – they have data. Analysts have the power to analyze that data and provide recommendations to management on what to change and how to change it to increase revenue and/or reduce costs.
Executives don’t get into positions of power by permitting analysts to go running around telling everyone what strategies did or did not work and by providing recommendations on what to do next. Executives get and maintain power by maintaining control over the analysts and the data. Hence, the “need” for those command-and-control management structures.
To maintain their power, executives have to find an efficient way to control their analysts and the potential power those analysts have. That’s where the processes and reporting templates come in. By forcing the analysts to calculate predetermined metrics into predefined reporting templates, the executives undermine analysts’ power by preventing them from doing what they do best: analyzing data to provide strategic and actionable insights.
What the executives get instead is the predetermined answers they were looking for. In other words, executives get the numbers they need to look amazing and retain their positions and power.
Publicly, the executives whine about the absence of business-minded analysts capable of producing strategic insights. Privately, these same executives created the processes to prevent the insights they publicly claim to seek.
Analytics requires mindless automatons to produce metrics populating report templates used by decision makers to make themselves look good, justify their decisions, and to maintain or achieve promotions to increasing levels of power.
The truly talented, and employed, analysts have learned to adapt through learned helplessness.
The Path to Insights
These disempowered analysts I speak of have one thing in common: the structure of their organizations. Each one works in a company where analytics has been decentralized into verticals, silos, lines of business, or in an agency/vendor. In my experience, empowered and creative analysts work in centralized analytics organizations or “centers of excellence.”
In Analytics at Work, Davenport et al. support the notion of empowering analysts advocating
“autonomy at work – the freedom and flexibility to decide how their jobs are done” (p. 103)
and “a strong culture of trust – where they believe that the other people in the organization are open and honest and act with integrity” (p.104).
Davenport et al. note that these conditions, and centralized analytics organizations, are the exception rather than the rule. I submit that these are the conditions necessary to empower analysts – that by changing the management structures under which analysts work, companies can achieve the strategic insights and recommendations they claim to want.
That these conditions do not exist is because it is not in the executives own self-interests to allow them to exist. That to maintain their power, executives maintain control over the stories the analysts can tell through pre-determined processes and decentralized analytics teams that report to the executives who could be negatively impacted by the stories the analysts could tell, if they were permitted to analyze the data.
Both parties – executives and analysts – have to take responsibility for the current state of affairs. Consistent with Seth Godin’s Linchpin concept, analysts are going to have to stand up for themselves and defy their managers and/or processes. I encourage every analyst to defy the process – analyze the data and provide your manager and/or client with insights and recommendations. Who knows? Maybe the managers and clients are frustrated by the same reporting straightjackets and are looking for the path to those strategic insights themselves. If so, you have taken the initiative to improve your company – something many managers, including myself (once upon a time ago), always appreciated, encouraged, and enjoyed seeing.
If that isn’t the case – if the manager rejects the analysis and demands the process be followed and the reporting template to be filled out – then the analyst must start looking elsewhere for employment. And yes this a dire situation given the keyword search I did earlier. But if we stay in these soul-sucking roles, then we empower these executives to disempower us and destroy our souls.
The best thing we can do is to maintain the current “talent” shortage – to force companies to change their organizational structures and processes – to teach executives that the best way to maintain their power is to share or delegate that power with/to their analysts. With luck, those executives who fail to learn this lesson will themselves receive a pink slip.