UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

The Big Data Talent Gap

April 29, 2013 By Heather Harreld

The following is an excerpt from a white paper from UNC Executive Development.

By Stan Ahalt, director of the Renaissance Computing Institue (RENCI) and Kip Kelly, director of UNC Executive Development

big dataBig data—the massive amounts of information companies collect through web crawlers, social media feeds, server logs, customer service databases, and other sources—is quickly becoming big business in today’s competitive marketplace, and if business leaders haven’t added big data to their strategic agendas yet, they will be compelled to in the near future. Few organizations, however, have the talent with the expertise needed to collect, organize, and analyze the data and to provide meaningful insights. Even fewer organizations have business leaders with the knowledge and experience needed to create value from big data.  HR and talent management professionals should understand how big data will affect their organizations and should be thinking about how best to build big data talent in their organizations.

Big data is transforming every industry as companies realize the opportunities they have to leverage big data analytics in marketing, sales, and operations. Google, for example, uses big data analytics to identify flu outbreaks in the United States in real time—a feat that takes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about two weeks to do because it relies on slower reporting mechanisms. Google can identify the outbreaks faster because it receives more than three billion search queries on a daily basis and saves them all. Through big data analytics, Google was able to identify 45 search terms that, when used in a mathematical model, showed a strong correlation between their predictions and the CDC’s figures.

Target Corporation is another example of an organization leading the way in leveraging big data. Target wanted to identify customers who might be pregnant so they could gain their shopping loyalties well before the child’s birth. They examined the items couples tended to buy prior to pregnancy, like vitamins, unscented lotion, hand towels, etc., and through mathematical machinations, determined the likelihood that each couple was pregnant. By marketing to these couples well before their child’s birth, Target is able to capture a high-volume buying demographic.

As the demand for big data grows, so does the demand for the talent necessary to make sense of it. Unfortunately, there is simply a lack of people who have big data analytic skills, and this will lead to a severe talent shortage. HR managers and talent development professionals must understand the knowledge, skills, and abilities big data analysts need, and they must take steps to ensure their organizations have the talent to take advantage of the big data revolution.

Big data analysts must have skills similar to their IT predecessors— they must have a solid computer science background that includes knowledge of applications, modeling, statistics, analytics, and math—but they also need business savvy and the ability to communicate their findings to business and IT leaders in meaningful ways, skills not typically featured on IT job descriptions.

Businesses need more than big data analysts, however. Managers at all levels will have to develop new knowledge, skills, and experience to be effective. As Jeanne Harris, senior executive research fellow for Accenture Institute for High Performance, wrote in a blog for Harvard Business Review, managers must become more adept at mathematical reasoning and will need to understand how to use statistical models, how to interpret data, metrics, and the results of statistical models. They must also have the ability to look beyond their functional areas and see the big picture so they can tell the story the data reveals.

It is this combination of business acumen, knowing the right questions to ask, and deep technical knowledge that is confounding most organizations when it comes to finding big data talent.

You won’t find big data talent coming from colleges and universities because big data majors are few and far between. Some organizations are developing employees from within by offering to pay for big data training and development. Other organizations, like IBM and SAS, have partnered with universities to develop big data programs. Still others are thinking outside the box in their recruitment efforts and are recruiting talent from fields not typically identified with big data analytics, such as R&D, finance, physics, biology, and medicine.                

As demand for big data talent grows, competition for talent will become more aggressive and more expensive. HR and talent management professionals must act now to educate themselves, managers, and senior leaders about big data and its implication on their organizations; develop creative strategies to recruit and retain big data talent; and offer solutions to build big data talent in their organizations.