What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Data Analytics Skills

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal identified the following traits as valuable skills for today’s open data-scientist positions: expertise in higher mathematics, practical problem-solving skills, the ability to “translate Ph.D. into English,” industry experience, communications skills, and a knack for plucking “useful information from data that often lacks an obvious structure and may even come from a dubious source.”

Here are a few attributes that the article didn’t mention: paradox management, ethical mettle, comfort with gray area, and the ability to apply organizational principles to decisions  in which factors exist outside of the boundaries of organizational policies. The technical and communications skills are necessary, but the so-called softer skills that I mentioned are quickly becoming even more valuable.

If I sound like I’m on an ethical high horse, bear with me. I just held numerous discussions with marketing leaders on the (separate and related) issues of data security and privacy. I was struck by the magnitude of the data challenges that marketers and their colleagues face. The complexity of the management and security of customer data stems from fluidity. How, where, and why companies obtain, analyze, and secure customer data is changing dramatically and quickly. So are the approaches and tools criminals use to breach this data. As a result, so are consumer—and, consequently, legislator—opinions about data security and privacy.

Seventy-one percent of consumers surveyed by SAS last year indicated that recent news of major data security breaches intensified their data-privacy concerns. Yet, 60% of these same respondents also said that they expect businesses to know their preferences and understand their needs. A 2013 holiday-shopping survey from Accenture found that 61% of consumers would trade increased privacy for more personalized offers from their retailers.

I would wager that the Accenture survey figure would be significantly lower than 61% had the question been posed immediately after the Target breach hit the news. Managing marketing data means managing multiple moving targets. That’s why establishing firm, steady principles (or values, or behavioral guidelines) is so important within marketing functions and organizations as a whole.

Policies and rules simply cannot keep up with the pace of technological advancement—or with fluctuating customer preferences and a highly charged political and regulatory environment. Rules, as LRN CEO Dov Seidman has pointed out, tell us what we can and cannot do; values tell us what we should and should not do. 

When CEOs, CFOs, and CMOs are hiring data scientists, they should look beyond the valuable and necessary technical requirements of the position to ensure that candidates have the ability to distinguish between should and should not. These are the traits that can help companies avoid dubious reputations.


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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