How important is the human element behind business analytics?

BY Jenna DutcherJune 16, 2022, 6:17 PM
Customers eat lunch at Boudin Bakery, as seen in May 2022 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There’s a common misconception that business analytics and data science deal solely with hard numbers and statistics. While technical skills are certainly critical components in these fields, soft skills cannot be discounted, a fact increasingly acknowledged by the many graduate programs that train future analysts. 

Soft skills are increasingly in demand in the workplace, as well, which has been highlighted by the shift to remote work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, there’s a premium for soft skills—like creative thinking, managing, and recognizing emotions—none of which can be replaced by robots in an era that’s also seen a shift to automated work, according to the Harvard Business Review.

The emphasis on soft skills is obvious in offices across the country—and that’s also the case for people in the field of business analytics, says Dan O’Hara, a talent business analyst at Deloitte. “You only get half the story without [soft skills],” he adds. “If I throw some data at you without tailoring it to the specific questions you were trying to answer, does that get you what you need?”

The ability to clearly communicate findings and shape analyses to the questions that need to be asked is critical for effective business analysis, making it apparent that the human element is here to stay.

But what are the soft skills—or that human element—that organizations are looking for among business analysts? To answer that, Fortune took a deeper look at what’s being taught in the graduate programs where future business analysts are being trained.

On the ground with today’s business analytics curricula

More and more, graduate programs in analytical fields are introducing elective “softer” subjects, including strategic thinking, management, or ethics courses.

For example, Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) master’s degree program in analytics, the No. 1 program on Fortune’s ranking of the best online master’s degree programs in business analytics, describes its curriculum as “a five semester journey through the predictive analytics process with soft skills training.” In the course of honing their technical analytics skills, TAMU students are also trained in the fundamentals of team building, storytelling, and leadership, among other soft skills.

This type of integrated coursework is becoming increasingly common in the business analytics field. For example, Indiana University–Bloomington’s master’s degree program in business analytics offers advanced coursework in strategic marketing management, covering marketing strategy, market research and analysis, among other topics, while Pepperdine University’s master’s in business analytics counts “Communications with Data” as a core course in its curriculum. Kent State University’s master’s program in business analytics also offers a soft skill core competency in business acumen, covering skills like communication of findings and identifications of problems to solve.

The master’s degree program in business analytics at Syracuse University offers numerous “softer” electives alongside the core curriculum, including strategic management and strategic brand management, and West Virginia University’s business data analytics master’s program digs even deeper, with coursework on the ethical considerations involved in data collection.

From electives to core coursework to underlying themes of entire degree programs, soft skills are driving the future of business analytics, providing ways to not only analyze but communicate findings to those who need them.

On the job: roles and responsibilities

Worldwide, it’s corporate workplaces and organizations—not just graduate programs—that are benefiting from the introduction of softer skills into their analytical processes.

ZipRecruiter, the employment marketplace, identified the most important keywords related to the business analyst jobs listed in their database. The results, while understandably weighted toward technical and analytical skills, also included “collaboration,” “communication skills,” and “facilitation” in the Top 10 job skill keywords that appear across millions of business analyst job postings and resumes.

Communication is a key skill set for business analytics, say practitioners. There’s a critical need for soft skills like communication in order to make sure any quantitative findings can be understood by stakeholders, says Jack Sinden, a senior manager of global CRM strategy who works in in data and analytics at Under Armour. 

“The best analytics leaders I’ve worked with have a deep understanding of the topic, but are able to communicate to non-technical audiences,” Sinden says. “At the end of the day any department within an organization needs to show value and vision. Without soft skills, communicating value and vision becomes tricky.”

How critical are soft skills in business analytics?

It’s important to keep in mind that soft skills in business analytics are a complement, not a replacement, for technical strengths. But the ability to identify the correct problems can inform the analysis that’s ultimately performed. And while stakeholders may want to get straight to the meat of the data, O‘Hara argues that softer abilities like communication and presentation skills may be key to conveying the analytical findings across an organization.

O’Hara says he’ll often probe colleagues about a particularly odd data request, only to realize they need something altogether different. Anticipating needs and identifying the real problems at hand are just a few of the skills today’s business analysts are putting to good use.

“Sometimes focusing on the human element takes longer,” O’Hara says, “but it’s always going to lead to a better result for the end recipient—and why waste my time at all if what I’m sharing isn’t useful in the end?”

Sinden, who received his MBA from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, agrees. “You can have the most technical staff pushing the bar on great analytical work, but unless the wider org understands the output and how it shapes the org’s success, then this type of work can get lost.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.