How This MNC Trained 200 Citizen Data Scientists

Gary Cantrell has a problem with data scientists. To be clear, the senior VP of IT likes data scientists but has a problem hiring them.

Despite having both the desire and the means to pay them, the CIO of a multi-billion-dollar manufacturer Jabil could not find enough of them. Jabil has a global staff strength of 200,000, with operations spanning 100 facilities across 28 countries.

Dearth of data scientists

“For the longest period, I was convinced there were only three data scientists in the world, and they just moved around from company to company, getting more and more money, because you couldn’t find these folks. That’s what kicked us off on this program,” said Cantrell in an interview with Datanami.

This formed the impetus for taking a different approach. It took three years, but the organization successfully put close to 200 employees through a four-month Citizen Data Science Program. These range from engineers, analysts to business professionals who are already employees of the firm, with most of them being employees from the U.S., Malaysia, and China.

According to Cantrell, one advantage of citizen data scientists is how they understand the data in the context of the specific organization. While this is possible with the “right” data scientist hire, the difficulty of even hiring one makes this an elusive hope.

Solving real problems

Of course, employees do not spend the entire four months dabbling in data science: they spend only a week out of each month, going back to their usual jobs for the rest of the time. Participants of the program are put into cross-functional teams, and the educational aspect revolves around getting the team to identify a business problem and solving it.

This means participants spend the first week selecting the use case and figuring the data they will need as well as how the problem will be tackled. This is followed by a design phase the second week, and data modeling the week after. The final week is where the team works through the implementation and developing summaries of its application.

Because the course focuses the educational efforts of employees on solving a certain data science problem in the context of the firm’s business, this allows them to easily apply what they have learned to problems they face on a day-to-day basis. In a nutshell, they become citizen data scientists.

Building a data-driven culture

But while the approach is tactical and revolves around practical outcomes, the eventual objective is to develop a culture of data-driven decisions across the organization. Indeed, Cantrell hopes the embrace of data science will help drive the message that data can help the business make better decisions.

“You have [a] deeply knowledgeable, long-term member of the team that has great gut instinct and all that.  That’s great when you’re on the team. But in the long term, you have to train more of those, or you have to develop better processes to make decisions based on data analytics and facts,” explained Cantrell.

There is no question about the importance of a data-driven culture. As observed by Shawn Rogers, the senior director of analytic strategy at TIBCO Software when he spoke to CDOTrends late last year, many companies get distracted by that “bright shiny toy of technology”. He said: “[The successful application of data and analytics] is a balance of people, technology and culture.”

“Whether it is in healthcare or other industries, everyone is being disrupted. Being data-driven and applying analytics is now key imperatives in many businesses, who see it as a way to stay ahead of their peers in their respective industries,” summed up Rogers.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/fizkes