Sourcing Big Data Talent

When it comes to assembling your Big Data team, deep and wide knowledge of the business is vital to success.

Talent deficits are blocking businesses from turning Big Data into insight, according to our 5th annual Digital IQ survey of more than 1,100 business and technology executives. Only 44 percent of respondents said they have an adequate supply of talent to capitalize on the promise of Big Data (PwC’s 2013 Digital IQ Survey: It’s only a matter of time before business managers start asking for your help with sourcing and training Big Data teams. What skills are needed? Where can Big Data talent be found?

Much of the discussion about Big Data talent gaps has revolved around “data scientists.” When executives say they are looking for a data scientist, what they really mean is they want a renaissance man or woman who can singlehandedly seize Big Data’s opportunities. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Leonardo Da Vincis in the talent pool. It’s highly unlikely that one person is going to deliver the wide range of skills and mindsets that are needed, including intimate knowledge of the business, complex mathematical and statistical modeling skills, insatiable curiosity, creativity and collaboration, and perseverance in the face of uncertainty. Corporations need to get more realistic and build Big Data teams.

When it comes to assembling your Big Data team, deep and wide knowledge of the business is vital to the success of Big Data. You need someone with expertise that spans marketing, sales, distribution, operations, pricing, products, finance, risk, etc. This person needs the capability to ask the right business questions, together with the skills to articulate how information, insights, and analytics can determine the appropriate course of action.

Working hand in hand with your business experts are the employees with a solid understanding of statistical and computational techniques who also can communicate the business value of Big Data to business leaders. In other words, they are whole-brain thinkers who are the lynchpins of Big Data success. Data technology expertise is also instrumental. That expertise includes a keen understanding of external and internal data sources, how they are gathered, stored, and retrieved; capability to extract, transform, and load data stores; skills to retrieve data from external sources (through screen scraping and data transfer protocols); proficiency in using and manipulating large Big Data data stores (using an entire range of emerging Big Data technologies); and the capacity to use the disparate data sources to analyze the data and generate insights.

Lastly, you need a data artist with a robust understanding of visual art and design; the mastery to turn statistical and computational analysis into graphs, charts, and animations; ability to create new visualizations (e.g., motion charts, word maps) that draw insights from data and the analytics; and ability to generate static and dynamic visualizations on a variety of visual media (e.g., reports and screens—from mobile screens to laptop/desktop screens to high-definition large visualization “Walls,” interactive programs, and augmented reality glasses in the future).

View Your Employees Through the Light of Big Data

Making the connections between structured and unstructured data and the business’s bottom-line goals takes creativity. So does finding the right talent for the task. Obviously, you won’t find a neon sign pointing the way to the perfect set of people. However, if you can view your existing employees in a new light and through the lens of Big Data, you’ll probably make a significant discovery of your own: You’ve already hired your Big Data team.

Chances are, you bump into your Big Data stars as you traverse your corporate campus. Likely, they reside in various pockets of the organization, including marketing, actuary, product development, etc. You might still need to venture outside to round out your team. If so, scan your internal landscape as thoroughly as possible for business knowledge and analytic expertise. Try to reserve recruiting outside for the more technical skills that don’t require as much intimate business understanding.

You might need to provide training for existing employees with high, Big Data potential or bring in new talent. If so, several colleges and universities across the country have launched data science programs. For example, some well-known universities are offering courses that provide students with the skills necessary to develop techniques and processes for data-driven decision-making—the key to effective business strategies.

Consider the Cross-Training and Corporate Culture Factors

Once the Big Data team is formed, they’ll need to get to know each other. Cross-training is critical in a Big Data environment. Big Data team members will need to acquire a basic understanding of each other’s disciplines so they can communicate and collaborate effectively. Your Big Data team will need to move cohesively toward a common purpose and forgo trying to outdo each other. Consider this: Are the candidates team players?

Moreover, can the potential team members handle the uncertainty inherent in Big Data innovation? Are they naturally curious and comfortable with surprises and disappointments? Cherry-pick team members who are wired to take risks, take failure in stride, and enjoy not knowing exactly what the outcome might be. Consider tapping into your own data such as performance reviews and peers reports to determine which candidates are cut out for Big Data exploration.

Big Data innovation is like venturing into the vast unknown. It’s unpredictable. Big Data teams can dive into data and unearth information that inspires swift, dramatic decision-making. But sometimes teams can surface empty handed. Big Data team members must be the type of people who can take the ups and downs of Big Data projects.

Ultimately, Big Data is about people. Business transformation won’t happen without pulling the right people together and empowering them with permission to experiment. Big Data presents a major opportunity for you to partner with the C-suite to cultivate a Big Data decision-making culture. You can help drive the business strategy by identifying and developing the human and organizational capabilities that directly support the overall business objectives.

The responsibility for spearheading Big Data initiatives varies from organization to organization. Whoever is in charge needs to partner with you to handpick, prepare, and support the people who plunge into the mysterious world of Big Data. The Big Data movement is an opportunity for HR to play a pivotal role in business transformation. The possibilities for what the organization can achieve are vast and awaiting discovery.

Oliver Halter and Anand Rao are principals at PwC.


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