Friday, June 1, 2018

BLIND SPOTS: When it Comes to Data, it’s About the Conversation

The following post was initially posted on LinkedIn.

During my 40 years in IT management, I often encountered people who were great computer scientists. But they couldn’t hold a business conversation with a group, let alone senior managers. We often had to provide special coaching to teach these bright, dedicated professionals how to describe technical opportunities in “normal” English.

This inability of IT professionals to have consultative conversations is a common problem in business --and it’s likely to get worse.

As we journey further into the data-driven age, corporations are facing a looming shortage of university graduates trained in data science. That alone is a concern.

Meanwhile, those who already are, or soon will be, working in the corporate world may be able to speak fluent algorithm and statistics -- but they can’t explain how they use data to their non-data-science colleagues responsible for strategic planning, training, reports, sales, and so on.

This forms a gap between technical skills and communication/consultative skills in the workplace. It is a disconnect between data science-speak and soft skills that are basic to business life. I call this disconnect “blind spots.”

As an IT professional and a now a faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), I am keenly interested in this growing problem, which can affect graduates’ marketability as much as the corporate bottom line. In fact, addressing these gaps is key to my role at UMSI. Among my responsibilities, I teach a class on IT Leadership & Management

As I was preparing my curriculum last year, I attended a Gartner CIO Summit in Toronto. Gartner, Inc. is a leading research and advisory firm that focuses on technology.

It was the perfect place to talk about needs and gaps with CIOs and their trusted advisors. One comment provides the economic context: “The universities can’t graduate data scientists fast enough for the 10x growth in demand.”

Other comments I heard only added to this theme: "Technology is not the problem; people and culture are the challenge." CIOs need to hire “collaborative facilitators.” Data science students have the technology skills, but "they need to know executives’ questions before asking the questions of the data." “Data scientists are statistics magicians and super coders, but they lack domain (business) expertise.”

And finally: "Students need to learn compassion."

You get the idea.

These comments put things into some perspective. If the demand for data scientists is far outpacing the supply of new graduates, and the required skill set is becoming more consultative, something has to give. Salaries and starting bonuses may skyrocket, but that’s not going to meet the need. Neither is more tech skills.

Informed by all of this, I assigned to my master’s students this past year to prepare a corporate-style presentation of a technology-based project proposal and present it to a panel of senior manager volunteers. I wanted to test what I had been hearing.

The results were mixed. Some student teams struggled with a focused, executive-style presentation. Other teams were able to navigate it -- with some practice and coaching. Their biggest challenge was converting a conclusion into an “ask”—a call to action, decision and commitment from their audience.

In contrast, teams with students who had prior consulting or corporate world experience fared much better. That underscored my concern: Real-world experiences are doing a better job teaching the communications skills than educational institutions.

This means we educators need to figure out the best way to prepare students for the workplace. We have many excellent professors and guest speakers at U-M. I have sat in their classes and I have watched their online presentations. We often model the communication and consultative skills our students need.

We need to teach what we do well in the better classes we teach, on campus and in our online courses. We are passionate, animated and adept at getting new and even difficult concepts across to our audiences. We also know how to be consultants with our students. We are our own case studies. We need to be more explicit about how we do this, so that students learn not only by observing, but also by learning the theory behind good communication and then practicing it in business and other settings.

While it is essential to train students to code with the latest tools, we cannot neglect communication and negotiating skills, and even psychological sensitivity. Organizations should be able to require these skills rather than having to provide remedial training.

Meanwhile, if we want to teach the soft skills effectively, we need to take our own advice: Go to business leaders, analysts and academic designers for answers – and hold the kind of discussion we need to model for our students.

I look forward to the ensuing dialogue.

Edward Happ is Executive Fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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