Business

Business Analytics Projects & Importance of Project Management in Business Analytics

Today, project management is a critical discipline in all areas of an organization, and these skills seem especially necessary in business analytics projects. Many studies and long experience have shown that managing business analytics projects can be particularly challenging; these projects are not much different in terms of project management challenges but often experience greater uncertainty and more change during project execution. According to 2013 Gartner research, more than half of all analytics projects fail to deliver the original features and benefits as well as running over schedule and budget.

Today’s managers of business analytics projects need to develop a specific set of project management skills that help them become a stronger change agent, a coach, and an effective communicator to successfully manage and deliver projects.

This article begins with the discussion of typical characteristics of business analytics projects followed by the importance of project management in business analytics projects. It also discusses the real-world examples from Epsilon – how project management tools and techniques are being used in Epsilon’s business analytics projects. The last section of the article describes the efforts in academia (at Drexel University) to prepare business analytics students with project management skills.

Business Analytics Projects

As reported by Hendershot (2016), more than 75% of organizations have planned big data investments in the next 2 years, according to a 2015 Gartner report, yet only 37% of organizations have deployed big data projects in 2015, which suggests that filling the gap between data and insight remains a substantial hurdle as well as evolving need of project management for such projects.

This is part of a long and growing trend in business analytics. There is constant pressure to deliver more insight, in less time and with rapidly increasing amounts of data. The amount of analytical data has grown tremendously and continues to do so. Today, data comes from every device in an organization, rather than from a few privileged business applications.

The pressure to provide analysis based on these data is immense, with business decision-makers requiring ever tighter iterations to deliver insights; 64% of business managers report shrinking decision windows.

Business analytics projects are unique in many ways and typically face a variety of challenges primarily due to large amounts of data as well as uncertain requirements and outcomes. One of the primary differences between analytics projects and other IT projects is the focus on expanding understanding of data and the process it represents. This causes business analytics projects to more frequently invite new inquiry as a result of successful execution. Other projects tend to be typified by more concrete knowledge and are a formalization of existing understanding or process. Analytics projects, when successful, cause individuals to understand a process in new ways – this learning prompts novel questions. This is a cyclical process.

Some business analytics projects challenges are:

  1. Analytics projects include much experimentation.
  • The value of answering a question is often unknown until the question is answered.
  • Late arriving data and requirements are the norm.
  • Often, discoveries in an early phase of a project materially alter the scope and timelines of later phases.
  • In short, questions beget answers, and answers beget new questions.

2. Business analytics straddles the fence between business and technical stakeholders more than most IT development projects.

  • End users expect massive flexibility to leverage an analytics deliverable in ways not anticipated during its delivery.
  • Reporting logic changes often and is not the domain of the individuals performing technical development.

3. There are myriad of alternatives to IT-driven solutions.

  • There is a proliferation of “phantom analytics” solutions 
  • reporting and analytical artifacts developed by end users on their desktops in tools like Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, SPSS, R, and Python. These are often developed independently and without organizational support but are required to be managed or merged into a formal business analytics program.
  • Most line-of-business applications include reporting functionality that will offer different results to what might be developed externally.

4. Business analytics projects have visibility across the entire organization.

  • It is not uncommon for the C-suite and low-level analysts to use the same analytical solution and reports and all levels of management in between.
  • Past failures can sour organizations to new projects.
  • Different functional areas may require access to the same solution, but have different expectations, leading to a “kitchen sink” mentality of including all possible functionality.

5. Data challenges.

  • For analytical purposes, strong data consistency is often a requirement, but unfortunately, that is not the case across many IT systems.
  • Analytics projects must rely on available data. Insufficient data can reduce or eliminate the value of analysis.
  • Data volume and velocity present challenges in ingesting new and historical data

6. Limited expertise.

  • Business analytics is a relatively young technical discipline; thus there are few individuals with expertise in the area relative to the massive demand for more insight. IBM projects the demand for data scientist to soar 28% by 2020 (364,000 job openings) in the United States (Columbus, 2017).

Project Management

Today, project management has become in demand within all areas of an organization – skills, such as scope and time management, cost and quality management, resource allocation and coordination, team building and communication, risk assessment, stakeholder and procurement management, project leadership, post- project assessment, and the ability to implement strategic change, among others, are sought by employers.

Project Management Institute (PMI), founded in 1969, is the leading association for the project management profession. Conducted since 2006, PMI’s Pulse of the Profession report provides the major trends for project management now and in the future based upon their global survey of project management practitioners. According to their 2017 Pulse of the Profession 2017 report, due to poor project performance, organizations are wasting an average of $97 million for every $1 billion invested. At the same time, the project success rate is much higher (92% versus 33% of underperformers) for those organizations that are more mature with their project management practices.

There is an ongoing trend for business to increase the priority of analytics projects. Additionally, business analytics projects are often crosscutting within an organization and have highly variable scope and requirements. These factors combine to make project management a critical discipline to achieve success in analytics.

Typically, two methodologies are used to manage business analytics projects: agile methods and CRISP-DM.

Agile Methods

Agile methods play a large role in business analytics projects. With the highly variable scope and requirements, it becomes necessary to have tighter integration of development and business stakeholders. Additionally, to justify the often large cost of business analytics projects, it is required to deliver value early. Finally, as the nature of interaction with an analytics solution is more free form and ad hoc, it benefits the business stakeholders to have early and frequent exposure to the data, the modeling process, as well as the solution deliverables. Overall, agile methods seem to provide benefits to business analytics projects.

CRISP-DM

As mentioned in (McMahon, 2016) report, in analytics projects, five elements are critical at all phases of the CRISP-DM (cross-industry standard process for data mining) process. Project management ensures that the business stakeholders do not change the principal aim of the analytics outcome. As described in Project Management Institute’s 2017 Project Management Body of Knowledge communication among the project stakeholders is one of the core areas of the project management methodology. Such communication should help a project in terms of clear understanding of the requirements, managing risks and changes as well as better outcomes as it goes through the five major phases of project management: initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing.

About Epsilon

Epsilon is a data-driven marketing company founded in 1969 and based in Irving, Texas. The company provides database marketing solutions and services that integrate data, creative, technology, and customer experience for large brands across industries. Epsilon serves customers in automotive, financial services, healthcare, nonprofit, retail, telecom and technology, and travel and hospitality industries in North America, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Some of its more analytical services include marketing services such as strategic and analytic consulting, marketplace assessment, competitive analysis, customer experience design, marketing mix allocation, investment justification, and predictive modeling and optimization.

In large projects (typically project which are over 1000 total hours), Epsilon takes a multidisciplinary approach, to partner strategy and analytics talent with its campaign execution team. The strategy team is responsible for asking and defining the key business questions related to execution, while the analytics team will define measurement standards and execute on the defined project that has been deemed to have enough practical utility for the business.

Project management in business analytics projects
Project management in business analytics projects

This project approach has been especially useful with the increase in data-driven marketing which allows for a better understanding of audience needs, wants, and behavior using available client and third-party online data sources.

Project 1: Life Science Project

Project’s Business Goals and Objectives

A life science company was looking to reduce and optimize its marketing investment across multiple channels. They required a new way to go-to-market that reduced emphasis on traditional sales channels and increased the use of inside sales and digital sales support. The objectives were to define a weighted measurement framework to assess promotional response and optimize it based on the segments being targeted for promotion. The project spanned 5 months and involved a strong analytically focused core team along with varied business stakeholders. The core team consisted of executive level sponsors, several analytics subject matter experts (primary research, digital analytics, and statistical methods), and many business stakeholders who provided data and inputs on goals and objectives.

Analytics Tools Used

Standard analytical tools and techniques were used. From SPSS for primary research to SAS for latent class modeling, many work streams worked on improving data quality and business rules to drive a better integrated model.

Project Management Tools Used

Due to the highly matrixed nature of the organization and the executive sponsorship level, project management was very rigorous on the project. Since the project kicked off with several high-level stakeholder interviews, the business representatives were involved at the start and required frequent updates on the project status including complete key activities, risk assessment, and budget updates. Project meetings were scheduled twice a month, and tracking was done via Gantt charts and risk matrices.

Epsilon’s integrated model
for business analytics projects
Epsilon’s integrated model

Key executives were interviewed to align on business objectives and goals, primary research was used where data was lacking, and data was aggregated, cleansed, and imputed where possible to create high-value data sets. Several work streams were undertaken simultaneously and combined to allow for an integrated model to be developed. The model above was then trained and operated for several months before becoming the standard for the organization. The steps in this model are aligned to Stefan H. Thomke’s four-step cycle: design, build, run, and analyze.

The project helped commercial operations and marketing leaders better understand the digital preferences of their customers. This insight, in turn, allowed for an improved allocation of dollars to marketing strategy based on individual customer segments rather than channel allocations. It reduced some marketing waste and increased marketing operations yield.

Project Success and Challenges

The greatest success was establishing an enterprise-wide system for assessing and optimizing promotional response for the organization highest-value customers. The biggest challenge was obtaining organization buy-in to continue funding the project. The lack of an immediate deliverable in an organization with a medium analytics maturity meant constantly looking for low-hanging fruit to clearly demonstrate value and the practical usefulness of the work.

Project 2: Creative Performance Analysis Project

Project’s Business Goals and Objectives

A specialty media advertising agency was looking to understand which aspect of their ad creative launched into market drove the highest level of performance. Experienced direct marketers have always executed tests to determine the optimal asset configuration to drive customer response; however, digital advertisers can be overwhelmed by the complexity of creative factors, media channels, and ad placements for similar analyses.

The scope of the creative performance analysis project was to look for a way to understand what aspects of the creative drove digital performance and to what extent was the graphical choices material to performance.

Online/digital advertising, much like direct marketing, relies on various aspects of creative for effectiveness. While direct mail uses stamps, stickers, and other markings to invite customers to “act now, before the offer expires,” digital ads use prominent fonts, calls to action (i.e., buttons in ads), and images to invite online users to click or submit information. Due to rich measurement ability in digital analytics, it is possible to determine the “effect” of various facets and levels related to an online ad using fractional factorial analysis performed either manually or using sophisticated testing tools such as Adobe Test and Target® or Optimizely®.

The project took a manual approach to extract the key attributes of several thousand online ads and attempt to link overall performance to these attributes. For example, would ads with people be more successful than ads without, or would ads with authoritative calls to action (i.e. “Click here”) be more effective than those without (i.e., “More information?”)? The business request came from senior business leaders, and the project was conducted over several weeks with a small team of subject matter experts. The project was managed by the chief analytics officer in close partnership with the analytics lead and subject matter experts. Additional support was provided by data analysts who extracted and compiled performance data related to the ads.

Analytics Tools Used

Microsoft Azure, Kafka, Tableau, Oracle, and Python were used to execute the project. Each of the aforementioned tools provided a unique and complementary function on the project: Microsoft Azure for its AI and cognitive services, Kafka for its dynamic data dashboards, Tableau for exploratory data analytics and reports, Oracle for performance data management and table calculations, and Python for log processing.

Project Management Tools Used

Project management was used to define and execute a proof of concept, to define a go-to-market approach with sales executive, to perform the analysis, and to rollout the project in order to support sales. The project was executed in a tight timeline and needed to be timeboxed to keep activities on track and scope managed.

Since the scope was flexible, the project manager created a well-defined project plan with deliverables, resources, and scope. Also, since the project was a prototype, scope was aggressively managed to focus on key deliverables including image assets collection, performance data tables, and dashboard design. Initial data collection and complexity around image assets caused several project delays which had to be addressed. Initially, the project called for Tableau to be used for dashboards, but due to compressed timelines, the analytics SME suggested Kafka to accelerate development time and keep the project on time.

Project Success and Challenges

Success was defining a minimum viable product which got instant market uptake after being shown to clients. While this project was helpful in defining a practical solution, the lack of stakeholder management during the project meant that scaling past the initial completion was difficult for the organization. No additional resources were applied, and the project was left as useful proof of concept.

How Academia Prepares Students with the Proper Skills

According to the Master’s in Data Science’s 25 Top Schools with Master’s in Business Analytics Programs report, a degree program in business analytics seems to be one of the growing majors within business schools. In addition to the foundation courses in business analytics, many such programs offer a set of electives, particularly, in project management, industry projects, and interdisciplinary programs.

For example, the Clarkson University’s MS in Data Analytics program offers an elective course in Strategic Project Management; the University of Chicago’s MSc in Analytics offers a core course in leadership skills – teams, strategies, and communication – and the University of Minnesota’s Master of Science in Business Analytics offers a core course, Project Management of Analytics Projects.

Additionally, the University of Connecticut takes an interdisciplinary approach with its integrated MS in Business Analytics and Project Management, a program where students are trained with both advanced business analytics and project management skills.

Through such core, elective and interdisciplinary courses in project management, the universities aim to better prepare graduates with not only technical skills but also with the core project management skills to link between data analytics and business objectives which include managing projects within scope, time and budget, controlling and managing changes, understanding customer’s needs, leadership, and managing project risks.

At Drexel University, both the undergraduate and graduate business analytics programs are offered by the Department of Decision Sciences and MIS where students are provided to learn and apply project management skills. This includes dedicated courses in the areas of project management and their practical applicability. Some of these courses also include practical classroom projects where students develop valuable project management-related insights from real-world perspectives.

Real-World Project Offerings

In order to provide students real-world project management skills, an action learning multidisciplinary classroom projects are offered at Drexel as part of MIS 361 and another global classroom project course, MIS 347: Domestic and Global IS Outsourcing. These project problems are both domestically and globally based, ranging from working with profit, nonprofit, and government entities.

In some of these real-world problem-solving projects, students at Drexel typically collaborate with students from a major university in India as they develop the joint solution. The Drexel students are responsible for consulting with their customer – to understand the project requirements, to successfully communicate them to students in India, and to manage the overall project. The students in India are responsible for designing, coding, and testing the technical aspects of the business problem solution.

The purpose here is to help students in both countries develop valuable insights not only into how to produce joint solutions but to provide them opportunities to learn how to deal with project management-related challenges such as working with the team with radically different work patterns, negotiations and trust, cultural sensitivity, project requirement interpretations, time zone difference, risk management, quality control, and, more importantly, distant communication.

In many cases, students worked on these projects for 8–10 weeks to fully develop the solution using cutting-edge technology. In addition to deposit their individual work hours, students typically exchange many emails and text messages and conduct face-to-face video conference meetings and social media communication, a critical aspect of the project management

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