Intuit’s Mint.com service enables users to see their financial information in one place, and having all that data allows the company to make customized recommendations about money-saving credit cards while also collecting referral fees when users make a switch.
Handling that vast customer data takes great technical skill, but understanding its potential—such as finding new ways to anticipate users’ needs and linking analytics to new revenue sources—reflects business expertise. That’s why it’s not enough for Intuit’s leaders working with big data to have a mastery of analytics: They need business acumen, too.
“If you’re going to be in a leadership role in this function, you can’t just be a bunch of ivory tower technologists siloed off,” says Michael J. Radwin, Intuit’s director of data science and analytics. “We want to be there at the table with the general managers, with everybody who is responsible for delivering products to the marketplace, and so there’s an expectation that the leadership can talk both languages and bridge that gap.”
Intuit, which sells business and financial management products including QuickBooks, Quicken and TurboTax, isn’t the only organization seeking “hybrid” leaders.
Diego Klabjan, director of Northwestern University’s new Master of Science in Analytics program, regularly hears from executives who want managers to speak business as well as they do IT. For all the attention paid to the growing demand for data science skills, a number of large enterprises are emphasizing the need for leaders to act as shuttle diplomats between the analytics experts and line-of-business executives.
Not surprisingly, finding these kinds of bilingual leaders is no easy task. Half of respondents to a recent survey by the consultancy NewVantage Partners said it was very difficult to find or hire business managers and executives who can identify and leverage the business opportunities in big data, and 31 percent said it was “challenging.”
Still, the potential for efficiency and improved communication between IT and business units makes the search for these folks so worthwhile. Radwin says it’s often easy for an MBA or product manager to find unsolved customer problems—they understand the marketplace and customer needs—while technology people are good at solving problems. “If you can find both of those characteristics in one person, that’s a super power,” he says.
This need for hybrid leaders isn’t just confined to enterprises that have established true data analytics groups, says Kristen Lamoreaux, president of the recruitment firm Lamoreaux Search. “Even those [organizations] that are coming late to the party are looking for that well-rounded person because they don’t know enough,” she says. “Their own internal executive leadership is not educated enough to have a heads-down quant guru who can’t speak to them in plain English.”
Blended knowledge is also sought after by companies across sectors, including the increasingly data-intensive category of health care. “If someone has no concept of what different types of laboratory data means or if they don’t understand how the whole patient process flows, it’s very hard to know what’s meaningful to pull out when you’re doing your analysis,” says Linda B. Hodges, who leads the information technology practice at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.
Hodges adds, “If [someone] doesn’t have an appreciation of the business and can’t understand and relate to the business unit leaders or clinical unit leaders, they’re not going to be successful no matter what a technical genius they happen to be.”
Meanwhile, the demand for data experts with business smarts is evident in recent job postings. Home improvement retailer Lowe’s, for instance, is seeking a “director data sciences and ops” who is not only a tech heavyweight with at least 10 years of experience setting up, maintaining and working with large scale database, BI and analytic environments, but also has “a strong business orientation” and an “ability to create technical solutions to meet business and analytic challenges.” Preferred qualifications include “computer science, MIS or other technical degree combined with MBA or other advanced degree.”
Likewise, an ad reveals food giant General Mills is seeking a “global Consumer Insights data scientist ‘big data’ manager.” Candidates must have a master’s degree, and one in business administration qualifies along with fields like statistics and computer science. The company routinely recruits candidates who have a blend of data analytical and business skills for positions in its Consumer Insights function, says public relations manager Maerenn Jepsen.
Business acumen was a requirement in all of the approximately 70 data-related searches by Heidrick & Struggles over the past 18 months—including for heads of analytics practices and heads of data research. “We recruit at the very senior level, and that’s just an absolute given that [candidates] understand the business and they understand their competitive ecosystem,” says Rebecca Foreman Janjic, the co-leader of Heidrick & Struggles’s Big Data & Analytics Practice.
About 18 months ago Heidrick & Struggles was working on a search to find a chief data officer for a large bank. This person would head the data analytics operation and report to the bank’s chief technology officer. But adding to the search’s complexity was that fact that fewer than 30 people had held the title of chief data officer at the time, Janjic says, and the bank sought someone who had worked at organizations of similar size with the requested level of experience.
The candidate who was ultimately hired had worked in IT but also had C-level experience driving business decisions inside a large corporation and a government entity, Janjic says.
Looking ahead, Radwin expects the search for blended leaders to continue to be challenging. While there will be more data-savvy prospects with business skills on the job market, companies will continue to compete for their talent, he predicts.
Graduate programs like Klabjan’s are helping expand the pipeline. His students, for instance, take business courses taught by instructors from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and work on projects with companies. “With some work experience, I definitely foresee [the students] becoming managers in a few years,” Klabjan says. “They will be able to bridge the gap between IT, business and science.”