Building a data analytics team? These are the 4 questions to ask first

Hiring effective communicators is key, say experts

Colleges and universities across the country are increasingly launching dedicated data analytics teams—or even full analytics offices

Similar changes are taking place at health care organizations, and Managed Healthcare Executive magazine recently asked several analytics experts in that industry for advice about building and optimizing these teams. They recommended four decisions that experts should make when launching a data analytics team.

1. Should we outsource?

Michael Vennera, the chief information officer and senior vice president of Independence Blue Cross, says his organization has found that they don't need to do everything themselves. For example, he suggests other teams could combine analytics from a third party vendor and a few in-house scientists.

But you must be "very careful in making [outsourced data] decisions," Vennera advises, since "you have to be able to balance what you need with what you can afford."

2. Who should the team report to?

Pamela Peele, the chief analytics officer at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Health Plan, notes that the traditional structure houses the analytics team under the Chief Information Officer. But she says making the analytics team its own department, separate from IT, has worked for her organization. The department has its own budget and staff—and can set its own strategy. The head of the team reports directly to UMPC's CEO.

3. How will we keep the team trained?

Regular training is vital for analytics teams, experts stress. Peele notes that members of the data analytics team benefit from opportunities for professional development that help them keep pace with industry-wide changes.

"Ongoing training is important, whether you have an entry-level or very sophisticated shop," says Peele. "We live in an industry that metrically is changing at a rapid pace. Analysts can't interpret what to do if they don't understand the operations."

At UPMC, Peele says, her team holds training sessions several days each month. 

How one university made data management into a campus-wide effort

4. Who will report the team's conclusions?

The above suggestions won't take you far if your analysts can't effectively explain their results to the rest of the organization. And if other departments can't understand what the analytics team is saying, they might be inclined to ignore their insights.

Peele encourages leaders to hire people to the data analytics team who will be able to "take results of analytics and craft it in a way that is digestible to senior management." Her organization hired two people with experience in journalism to join the team.

These trained storytellers, Peele says, "influence [the] organization by providing unbiased information in a way that leaders are used to receiving it" (Marbury, Managed Healthcare Executive, 12/1).

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