In a series of two posts, we will explore the case for and against the need for a business partner role within analytics teams. That is the need for account manager like roles, to engage with other business teams on behalf of more technical analysts or data scientists.

For this short series, I am delighted to be joined by a very experienced analytics leader, Martin Squires. You may recall that Martin previously shared his views on the value of analysts & joined us for an audio interview.

In the next post, I will state the case for this role & the advantages it can bring. But first, let’s hear from Martin on the case against. We will both follow a common structure covering definitions, points for our case, how to make it work if needed and alternatives if not.

I hope you find this debate useful, please let us know in the comments below. More on that option later. For now, over to Martin…

Definition: What do you mean by a Business Partner?

I think the business partner role has been set up in some analysis/insight teams to act as a bridge between what are seen as technical/back office roles and the end-users of the analysis or insights. Often I think these roles are set up when organisations get frustrated.

They believe they have built a database and hired analysts/data scientists/researchers but aren’t getting the best value from that investment. Often this is a frustration that they are just getting data that tells them what’s happened but aren’t getting insights. The “so what” or “now what” moments that they are after.

3 reasons against having a Business Partner role

1) Cost

The roles are expensive to fill and the skillset very hard to find. The opportunity cost in terms of investment in the analysis team is large when budgets are tight. If I was to have a specialist role I’d far rather have a data visualisation expert for example.

2) Temporary Fix

It’s at best a ‘band aid solution‘. The real problem may be a training need and the existing analysis teams need to develop “softer skills” (see Drew Conway venn diagram). Otherwise, there is something wrong in the operating model/culture of the organisation, that’s stopping the insights getting to where they are needed.

An extra role is likely to just hit the same stumbling blocks if its the latter. These barriers need leadership effort to sort them out.

3) Annoyance

The biggest reason is it annoys the hell out of junior analysts!

If you want to retain good analysts then one of the biggest things that will annoy them is being told they have to, in their view, hand their work over to someone else to create pretty Powerpoint. That person gets to talk to the marketing director, gets the glory for the work and gets paid way more money.

This may not be true, but it is definitely analysts perception. If this sounds passionate it is, this was my experience as an analyst many years ago. My job was reduced to “don’t give me ideas, I just want the spreadsheet and charts” by an account manager.

3 ways Business Partners hinder Analytics teams

A) Looking expensive

The extra roles & the cost of capable candidates make analytics teams look expensive when reorganisations happen.

B) Lack of credibility

Lack of credibility with stakeholders when account managers can struggle to explain the details behind work. “I don’t know, I’ll have to check with the team and get back to you” is too easy a trap to fall into.

C) Team morale & retention

I have seen the frustration with business partner roles cause poor retention rates. With analysts leaving at the two-year mark as there were no senior analyst positions for them. The account manager role effectively left either a very senior technical principal analyst role or becoming an account manager.

This can expand to a broader problem with team morale. Poor employee engagement scores driven by rifts in teams between the technical and account management roles.

What would you do if you had to make Business Partner role work?

The only time I’ve seen it work well was when the role was actually physically located outside the insights team. It sat within trading/commercial teams (although reporting into insights) and was deliberately filled with someone with clear trading experience.

Effectively this was an analytical trader (not an analyst) who was going to present their teams work. At an extreme, this role could even be a “power user” of insights within the trading or marketing teams. Someone responsible for filtering requests and making sure the insights team got the best brief for their area. Responsible for an insights plan to back up the commercial plans.

Such a role could be filled by a good insights manager/leader. But, in large organisations, having a key person inside the trading/marketing teams was never a bad thing.

What are some possible alternative solutions?

My primary advice is to train your team in softer skills. A great analyst or a senior analyst should be able to deliver the same value and shouldn’t need an account manager. They should be able to articulate their findings and recommend actions etc. 

If you have a small team

In small teams, make sure your team leader can perform this role. Don’t promote the best techie to run the team, promote the best leader. They can drive the strategy and should be making sure their work gets used.

If you have a team of ten or more

If you have a team of 10 and have 2 people to talk for the other 8, that is not the right answer. Instead, get 8 people who can talk to people and spend some cash on maybe 2 back office people with deep technical skills.

Basically, I’d rather have a structure with analysts, senior analysts and a team leader. With a couple of Principal Analyst roles, who are allowed to bring depth but maybe not breadth. Analysts should be “T shaped”, with analytical depth and consulting skills to bring the breadth.

If you are the business leader

If you’re the CMO then check it isn’t the culture first…ask yourself questions like the ones analysts get asked. Are they part of project teams or do they just get asked to provide work for them? Hint: If they aren’t on the project team then you’ve got it wrong.

How often do you discuss insights at your leadership meetings? Routinely or just when you think you have a problem or question that needs an answer? Again, if it’s the second one, account managers will only get frustrated that they don’t have access to key stakeholders. The same problem that analysts may already have.

Are you against Business Partner roles?

Having only heard the Prosecution’s case, how do you feel so far? Are you with Martin, in being against Business Partner roles? Why not let us know your viewpoint in the comments box below?

I must admit that I find a few of Martin’s points compelling. I strongly agree with the need for Analytics teams to invest in Softer Skills training (alongside coaching or mentoring for leaders).

However, I have seen Business Partner roles work well and am still convinced they have a part to play. I’ll be making the case for Business Partners in our next post…