We sat down with Grail Insights’ Michele Sachar, a featured speaker at IA Converge in Los Angeles, December 10-11. Michele specializes in using analytics and insights (often working with what already exists within clients’ own knowledge repositories) to better inform decisions across all parts of the business, from marketing through to finance. For many functions within businesses like finance, operations, HR, supply chain and others, insights have historically not been a core competency. However, the desire for this skillset is rapidly growing outside the traditional commercial or customer-facing functions. Insights professionals can play a meaningful role in bringing insight-driven decision making throughout the entire business. We spoke with Michele to learn more about this emerging trend in insights application. Here’s how she sees insights and analytics expanding to other business support functions.
Q: How do you see market research and insights approaches supporting business units that have not traditionally utilized insights?
A: We hear all the time that we are in the era of “big data,” and it is true that companies are sitting on an unprecedented amount of data. But other than basic reporting, or rudimentary predictive work, most companies do not scratch the surface of what they can learn from their data.
Q: What are some of the challenges of leveraging insights across different functions within businesses?
A: Wrangling the data itself is an issue. Often, data is housed in different systems across different units, and even within a unit. In many organizations, I see data still being shared and worked on in Excel, which becomes unstable when the data gets too voluminous. When the data is not organized efficiently for access and manipulation, it is a Herculean task for individuals to analyze that data for insights.
Q: Why does so much internal data go underleveraged?
A: In many functions, the combined skill sets needed to organize, analyze and drive insights from the data don’t exist. Oftentimes, the very people tasked with analyzing the data are instead spending much of their time merely trying to grapple with it, and then manually manipulating the data in Excel or other systems. This leaves limited time for insight. Further, without clean data and an embedded QC process, the data itself is mistrusted by the commercial business units that are supposed to use it to make decisions. This leads to inaction and inertia.
Q: You work with the Financial Planning & Analysis unit at a Fortune 500 company, which is not a place insights professional traditionally support. How did you help them gain internal visibility through leveraging internal data? What were some of the challenges? And payoffs?
A: This client was a poster-child for all of the issues that I highlighted in my last answer. They faced challenges just getting visibility into what was happening using basic reporting, let alone insights. The whole reporting process had become paralyzed. The function was jumping from one fire to the next, instead of helping advise their ‘customers’ on the commercial side of the business. The first step we took was to organize the data into a central database, automate the intake process to the extent possible, and pay attention to data hygiene. This was quite a challenge! This was a multi-brand company and each brand had different reporting requirements and data sets. The second step we took was to create BI tools on top of the central database. This not only saved the client significant labor time, but it allowed them to slice and dice data easily across brands, regions, and wholesale partners. They had never previously had such visibility! Now that they could use the data, the final step was to get them to ask the questions they wished they had answers to in order to be better partners to the business. This is where the insights come in. We tackled these questions one at a time. The payoffs are immense and quantifiable, such as being able to accurately identify areas to increase revenue or reduce cost.
Q: What’s your advice to other insights professionals trying to help what you call the “ho-hum” functions?
A: Well, first let me clarify that these so-called “ho-hum” functions are absolutely essential to any well-run company! They are only “ho-hum” in the sense that they’ve been overlooked or underleveraged in terms of the role that insights and analytics can play. So, in fact, I would advise insights professionals not to treat them as “ho-hum.” To do that you first need to gain an understanding of what the key business questions those support functions would love to be able to provide to commercial units in order to become a true value-added partner to the business. Those questions exist, trust me! Colleagues in these functions are thinking about them, but with their days filled with the daily grind of getting the basic data out, they don’t have the time or resources to answer them.
Michele, thank you! We look forward to learning more from you about the intersection of insights and business processes at Converge, December 10-11, in Los Angeles.