During his keynote for the 2019 WCAI Conference, Chief Data & Analytics Officer A. Charles Thomas mapped out the evolution of analytics as he’s seen it in the last 20 years of his career.

The 150 faculty, students, and diverse professionals at the ninth annual Wharton Customer Analytics Conference were a testament to how much analytics has grown over the last 10 years. Wharton has been doing more than keeping pace. Today, student clubs, undergraduate and MBA analytics tracks, online programming, and a new home for faculty at the forthcoming Wharton Academic Research Building are all fueling the momentum.

“The way we make better-informed decisions is to be able to work with data scientists on unlimited data,” said Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett, opening the conference on May 16. “[Not] a blizzard of information — that could blind you. What we try to do is ensure that you can actually see the horizon.”

Dean Garrett speaking to a full room at the Inn at Penn.

Experts highlighted successful applications and notable disruptions across various industries. A day prior, attendees were invited to participate in technical workshops to hone their analytic skills.

“You’re going to hear all different kinds of speakers and I think that’s great,” said keynote speaker A. Charles Thomas, Chief Data & Analytics Officer (CDAO) at General Motors. “But I think the true value is rubbing shoulders with folks and hearing how they’re dealing with problems that are common across all contexts.”

In his keynote, Thomas outlined how the role of data and analytics has transformed over time and how companies can stay at the forefront.

Major Shifts in Analytics Roles

In the 90s, data and analytics were handled separately, and analysts worked as individual contributors. As analysts took responsibility for higher-level problem-solving and communication, they grew into trusted advisors, and then CDOs and CDAs.

Now, those responsibilities are handled by the CDAO. “You have to have singular accountability for data and analytics because you’ve got privacy, you’ve got all these other issues around legislation, around hacking and concerns,” explained Thomas. “Of course, I work with the Chief Information & Security Officer and Chief Privacy Officer. But I’m the singular tip of the spear for data, regardless of what kind of data it is.”

Analysts are now game changers with an aptitude for insight. Thomas said: “Ultimately, my job is to drive cultural transformation.”

After his presentation, Thomas sat down with WCAI Faculty Director Prof. Raghu Iyengar for an in-depth Q&A.

How Companies Can Lead with Data

Understand the business process. “My job’s not only to get people ready to lead conversations, but to make sure we understand the organizational processes so that we can inject analytics into the right place, at the right time, to get the maximum benefit,” Thomas said.

Connect the technology. A CDAO can help a company utilize all their analytics tools — or retrofit them to work.

Prioritize information. Don’t be blindsided by the volume and speed of data. Focus on insights and problem-solving.

Hold people accountable. “There’s too much pressure on analysts,” Thomas said. Everyone from top to bottom should be held accountable for what they do and business leaders have to help bring all the elements together.

Reward the results. Offer positive reinforcement (though a little “sibling” rivalry between teams won’t hurt either).

The Value of Storytelling

While serving as an advisor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, Thomas wanted young analysts to understand the importance of diversity and communication. He believes that analysts should “not [be] completely enamored with Technology, Tools, Techniques, and really [focus] on the fourth T — which is Talking.”

He advises students interested in analytics to:

  1. Get your appropriate credentials.
  2. Be exceptional at what you do.
  3. Present an image that your family would be proud of.
  4. Learn how to differentiate yourself by mastering communications and storytelling.

“That’s the piece that separates the winners and the losers from the space,” added Thomas. “You can be not as good at analytics and better at storytelling, and still win.”

See the full conference agenda.

Gloria Yuen

Posted: June 19, 2019

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