Industry Insights

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Strategies for Guiding Data Science Teams Toward Excellence

September 12, 2023

This blog is contributed by Beverly Wright, PhD, CAP Head of Data Science Solutions at Burtch Works. With a career spanning 32 years across utilities, financial services, telecommunications, consulting, and academia, Beverly has not only led numerous teams but has also established herself as an analytics thought leader, executive professor, national speaker, podcast host, and a trailblazing advocate for data science for good.

In today's fast-paced world, where data reigns supreme, the role of data science teams has never been more vital. A growing number of organizations now recognize the pivotal role data science and artificial intelligence can play in enhancing performance, leading to the inclusion of data scientists in executive and managerial positions. However, the challenge lies not only in recruiting proficient data scientists but also in effectively leveraging their expertise for the organization's advantage.

These teams are tasked with deciphering the intricate patterns hidden within the vast oceans of data, helping organizations make informed decisions that can spell the difference between success and stagnation. However, leading a data science team toward excellence is no easy feat. It requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses cultural, soft skills, technical, and organizational aspects.

Fostering a Data-Driven Culture: Contextual Understanding and Collaboration

To foster a truly holistic approach to data science, it's imperative that your team invests time in preliminary research to grasp the contextual nuances of their work. Platforms like Google Scholar offer a treasure trove of published articles that can provide data scientists with valuable insights and a deeper understanding of the context surrounding their projects. Furthermore, if circumstances allow, consider encouraging immersive experiences. For instance, when dealing with call center data, advocating for team members to listen in on live calls and engage in discussions with call center representatives can be enlightening. Similarly, if your data originates from a manufacturing plant, arranging visits to the facility can offer invaluable perspectives on data sources and their contextual relevance.

One key principle to uphold is the avoidance of isolating your data scientists from the broader business context. While the use of data science translation tools may appear efficient, it can inadvertently create barriers between technical resources and business functions. It's often more effective to nurture a collaborative and communicative environment that fosters a dynamic exchange of ideas and insights between data scientists and the business side of operations. This synergy not only enhances the quality of data-driven decisions, but also promotes a deeper understanding of how data science can serve the organization's overarching goals.

Nurturing Soft Skills Through Diverse Experiences

Investing in your team's soft skills development can significantly enhance their overall effectiveness. Consider enrolling your team in activities like improvisational acting workshops, which can sharpen their communication, adaptability, and creative problem-solving abilities. Alternatively, organizing team-building ropes courses at local universities or specialized facilities provides unique opportunities for trust-building, leadership development, and effective collaboration in challenging environments.

Furthermore, encourage your team to engage in lower-risk but equally rewarding endeavors, such as participating in data science nonprofit projects together. These projects allow team members to apply their skills for a meaningful cause, which can also foster a sense of camaraderie and purpose within the team. These initiatives collectively contribute to a more well-rounded and culturally enriched data science team, poised for success in a dynamic and collaborative work environment.

Unleashing Curiosity for Continuous Learning

Data science and analytics professionals often embody natural curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning. These qualities are not just admirable but can be harnessed to elevate your team's expertise and impact. Consider implementing the following strategies to nurture this innate thirst for knowledge:

1. Certifications for Excellence: Provide opportunities for your team to pursue certifications in their field. Among the various options available, the Certified Analytics Professional (CAP) designation offered through INFORMS stands out as a robust choice, validating their expertise and commitment to excellence.

2. Conference Engagement: Encourage your team members to attend at least one industry conference annually. These events serve as hubs for the exchange of cutting-edge ideas and best practices, fostering continued growth and networking opportunities.

3. Knowledge Empowerment: Establish a dedicated learning and knowledge center equipped with a variety of platforms and tools. This resource should grant team members access to a wealth of meaningful and relevant materials, enabling self-service learning and empowering them to stay at the forefront of the ever-evolving field of data science and analytics. By embracing and fueling their natural curiosity and passion for learning, your team can drive innovation and excel in this dynamic domain.

Organizational Politics: Supporting Data Professionals for Success

Navigating the intricate landscape of organizational politics can challenge data professionals in nuanced and unproductive ways, particularly when left to manage issues without support. While it's tempting to develop an aversion to such dynamics, it's crucial to foster an environment where team members not only understand the politics but also learn how to engage with them constructively. To this end, it's imperative to shield and support your teams, especially those at junior levels, from unnecessary exposure to issues related to budgets and internal politics, while gradually developing data professionals to equip and enable their capabilities to eventually handle these issues on their own.

In addition to safeguarding against political distractions, providing opportunities for your team to champion their efforts and showcase their work is equally vital. Recognition and acknowledgment of their achievements not only boost morale but also highlight the tangible value that data science brings to the organization. By actively encouraging your team to engage in these efforts, you create a culture that thrives on the appreciation of their contributions.

Some forward-thinking organizations have taken further steps to create a strong sense of awareness and positioning for their data science teams within the broader organizational landscape. Former clients have successfully instituted internal summits, brown bag sessions, newsletters, and even unique logos dedicated to their data science teams. These initiatives go beyond mere recognition; they serve to create a distinct identity and purpose for data professionals, ensuring that their vital contributions are well-acknowledged and deeply embedded in the organizational fabric, resonating across all levels of the organization.

There are numerous strategies available to retain your data science teams and support their growth. These include fostering mentorship, recognizing the individual contributions of team members, offering engaging and meaningful projects, and providing financial incentives. In the end, data science leaders should actively explore these options, identify the approaches that align most effectively with their teams, and implement retention principles tailored to their teams' distinct requirements.