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Identifying and Training Your Internal Consultant: RAN Roundtable Peer Insights

IIA’s Research and Advisory Network (RAN) clients leverage battle-tested frameworks and an exclusive network of over 150 active practitioners and unbiased experts to plan, prioritize, and execute strategic enterprise data and analytics initiatives. We regularly check the pulse of trending topics for the RAN community and facilitate critical conversations in virtual roundtable format for peer-to-peer exchange.       

In a recent roundtable discussion with IIA RAN clients, data and analytics leaders explored the internal consultant role within their organizations, examining its varied definitions and expectations across different companies. They shared insights into the responsibilities and expectations tied to these roles, notably how they act as crucial links between data teams and business units, translating business needs into actionable data insights. The conversations also covered the essential skills and competencies required for these roles, such as adept communication, deep business understanding, and relevant technical knowledge, with a strong emphasis on the capacity to bridge and facilitate discussions between technical teams and business stakeholders.

Also, participants discussed the organizational impact and structure of these roles, exploring how they are integrated within their companies to influence workflows and decision-making processes. This part of the conversation highlighted how internal consultants help in prioritizing projects and aligning the work of data analytics teams with broader business objectives.

Overall, the conversation offered unique perspectives on the critical role internal consultants play in enhancing the effectiveness and strategic alignment of data analytics within enterprise settings, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of their responsibilities and the diverse skills they must possess to succeed.

This discussion was moderated by Kathleen Maley, IIA Expert and VP of Analytics at Experian. Here are the key themes and takeaways:

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1. Role Definition and Expectations

In discussions about the internal consultant role within data and analytics teams, participants highlighted various models and the evolving nature of these roles. One participant introduced the concept of decision scientists, who transition from business functions to a centralized analytics structure, linking data science teams and business leaders to ensure data interpretations align with leadership's expectations. Another shared the role of data product owners, responsible for evaluating the relevance of AI and analytics tools, guiding the initiation of projects, and safeguarding technical staff to focus on core tasks. This role was contrasted with that of data architects, who, unlike traditional roles, engage early to scope projects accurately.

Further insights covered the function of data catalysts who interface strategically with business units to clarify analytical challenges and manage solutions through agile methods like JIRA. The discussion also touched on roles akin to account managers, critical in prioritizing analytics requests and assessing their business value. Across different organizations, these roles, though varied, shared a common goal: to bridge the gap between technical capabilities and business needs effectively. This alignment is facilitated by structuring roles that maintain decision-making power within business units while closely integrating data teams to enhance business outcomes and continuous improvement.

2. Skills and Competencies Required

Regarding the skills and competencies required for internal consultants, participants emphasized the critical importance of communication skills, particularly the ability to articulate complex concepts to both senior management and technical teams. They highlighted the role of internal consultants in not just understanding and discussing business needs but also translating these needs into actionable insights for technical teams. The differentiation between technical and consultant skill sets was noted as crucial for enhancing team outcomes, with internal consultants bridging the gap between business stakeholders and technical analysts, facilitating focused, in-depth project work by technical staff.

Furthermore, the ability to creatively solve complex problems, or "puzzle solving," was stressed as vital. This involves integrating various information streams to address complex business challenges effectively, showcasing the dual necessity of analytical acumen and relational skills. Leadership qualities were also underlined as essential, with internal consultants needing to influence and guide projects without direct people management. The discussion also touched on the proactive engagement of technical teams with business units to build credibility and illustrate the potential of technological solutions. Finally, the conversation highlighted differing views on the ideal background for these roles, with some participants favoring a strong business acumen learned through direct experience over traditional technical education, enhancing the consultants' ability to integrate swiftly and effectively into projects.

3. Organizational Impact and Structure

When discussing organizational structure and impact of internal consultants within data and analytics, a leader highlighted the integration of a "community of interest" in their company. This community, led by data product owners, manages critical engagements across various business lines, such as sales and engineering, and organizes bi-weekly meetings to generate and qualify use cases. This structure not only prevents the technical team from being overwhelmed by varied demands but also ensures continuous engagement and interaction with business stakeholders, thereby enhancing the overall business impact and reducing isolation of technical teams. The discussion emphasized the strategic distribution of roles, where a single catalyst handles multiple business lines with the support of several data practitioners, effectively balancing workload and fostering a comprehensive approach to addressing business challenges.

Moreover, the session revealed the advantages of appointing team members as focal points across different functions, which helps in merging diverse business perspectives into unified analytical tasks, promoting innovation and holistic problem-solving. Participants also discussed the role of data subject matter experts who are specifically aligned with business area needs to ensure that the data and analytics team can provide timely and relevant insights. These SMEs work closely with business-facing units to thoroughly explore and understand the underlying data requirements, leading to a robust discovery and problem-solving process that aligns with organizational objectives. Additionally, the role of working analysts as pivotal links between business units and analytical teams was underscored, with their quick interpretation of business needs allowing for swift and specific responses to business queries, thereby maintaining the productivity and focus of technical teams.