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A Tale of Two Analysts

How can your time in Setupland and Actionland affect you? Consider the case of former classmates Lou and Max. After graduating from the same top-ranked MBA program, both have spent the last four years as dedicated, hardworking, and intelligent web analytics professionals, becoming senior web analysts at their respective companies. They both look to be equally busy and consumed by the demands of their jobs. Under closer examination, however, key differences emerge.

Lou's web analytics team has actually shrunk from attrition since he joined the company; even his admired mentor left. Although his team was spared during the recent round of layoffs, his company never filled the open positions on his team and they eventually disappeared. Despite repeated requests, Lou's team struggles to get any budget for more advanced analysis tools or to attend any key industry conferences.

Max's team, meanwhile, is thriving. Not only has it expanded each year, the company is planning to hire three more analysts in the coming months. He can't think of a time when his team wasn't able to get funding for whatever tool it needed. He is regularly invited to present at conferences and has built up a robust network of industry contacts. He enjoys his work, feels recognized, has received regular pay increases, and may be up for a promotion this year.

When the two friends catch up over coffee, Lou is shocked to learn Max is making significantly more than him. Lou determines he needs to explore the job market immediately. Maybe he'll even apply for one of the open positions at Max's company.

Why the stark difference experienced by these two equally capable analysts? Max spends 70% of his time on analysis whereas Lou focuses most of his time on reporting or other tasks and less than 10% on actual analysis. I've seen the same scenarios play out at countless companies. Analysts who are action heroes focus primarily on analysis, but too many analysts perform very little actual analysis in their day-to-day responsibilities. In fact, they are essentially reduced to being reporting robots (Figure 2.2): humans performing repetitive, routine reporting tasks that in many cases could and should be automated. In most cases these reporting tasks are mechanical in nature and don't require massive amounts of analytical horsepower to perform.

Figure 2.2

Figure 2.2 Are you a reporting robot or action hero?

Whenever sharp analytical minds are spending most or all of their time on reporting, talent is being wasted. Technology should be doing more of the heavy lifting with reporting through automated reports and dashboards.

Where Do Reporting Robots Come From?

In most cases, reporting robots are products of their environment. Most of the reporting robots out there dreamed of being in Max's shoes rather than finding themselves in Lou's. However, one thing or another has caused many web analysts to feel more mechanical than analytical (Figure 2.3). The following list identifies five scenarios that will create reporting robots at any company:

Figure 2.3

Figure 2.3 Most reporting robots didn't start out as machines; they were shaped by their environment.

  • Capability mismatch. In this scenario, the issue is the individual. The organization does an inadequate job of matching the candidate to the required skill set of the web analyst position, but the person simply doesn't have the capacity to be anything other than a reporting robot. He may have been available or interested in the web analyst position but that doesn't necessarily mean he's qualified for it. "Jimmy in IT set it up. He knows how the web analytics tool works. Can't we have him do the reporting and analysis?" These mismatch scenarios often lead to having someone who is comfortable with reporting but not with analysis.
  • Wrong structure. The ownership of the web analytics program can influence whether an analyst flourishes or dwindles. A company might not know which department should own its analytics resources, and senior executives mistakenly align it with a department that doesn't fully appreciate the strategic importance and value of web analytics. As a result, web analysts will report into a group and manager who may not understand or care about web analytics. In these cases, the analyst is typically measured by the volume of work she generates rather the actual impact of the work. You can generate tons of reports and dashboards without taxing your brain too heavily, and the throughput looks great to an uninformed, disinterested manager. Over time, the web analyst will fall into the trap of focusing on low-value work that is inadvertently rewarded and recognized by such a manager.
  • Insufficient training. A web analyst may have the talent but lack training to do in-depth analysis. Without proper training, he may be limited to just focusing on reporting because that is all he knows how to do with the analytics tools. Until he receives some kind of training, he will continue doing what he's comfortable with. In addition, without adequate training, an analyst may not be using the products in the most efficient or effective manner. With the right training, he may be able to complete reporting tasks more efficiently and be able to invest more time in performing strategic analysis work.
  • Low bandwidth. The web analytics team may be understaffed and unable to meet all of the reporting requests coming from different parts of the company. Just keeping up with ad hoc questions and reporting requests will leave very little to no time for exploratory analysis.
  • Conflicting priorities. A web analyst may be tasked with other responsibilities besides web analytics duties (managing paid search, reporting on offline data, etc.), which may limit her ability to focus on anything but basic reporting. If analysis is not a high priority for her manager, then realistically it's not going to receive much attention from the analyst.

If you're assigned to manage a group of web analysts who appear on the surface to be reporting robots, closely examine the individuals you inherited, as well as their environment. Before you start evaluating the skill sets of the individuals, first look at their job satisfaction. Generally, potential action heroes are not happy being reporting robots. Over time their analysis spark may have been extinguished due to organizational issues out of their control. They may be team players who are willing to do their fair share of the reporting drudgery, but deep down they know that their talent and passion for analytics is being wasted. Meanwhile, individuals who are content with their current reporting focus often don't have the capacity to perform more meaningful analysis.

If your company has a large analytics team, it might have the luxury of retaining some of its reporting robots to deal with ongoing reporting requests. Most companies will want individuals who can handle both the reporting and analysis aspects; however, more and more the low-level, standardized reporting is being automated or outsourced to external third parties so that the strategic analysts can apply their skills and expertise where they can add the most value: deep-dive analysis and optimization efforts.

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