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The Fine Art of Analytics


While business analytics and the art world seem like they have little to do with each other, in fact they share a number of key characteristics:

Visibility is the first shared characteristic between analytics and art. If the paintings of Picasso or van Gogh had never been seen by anyone except one collector, they would neither be considered great nor had any influence on the world of painting. The same would be true of the music of Wynton Marsalis or the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, if they had never played in public.

For analytics to have real impact they must be accessible to, and be seen by, the employees whose environment is being measured. Everyone has some perception of their work, regardless of whether it is expansive or limited, accurate or distorted. Good analytics that are accessible, understandable and timely will have an impact on those perceptions. Analytics are an opportunity to influence how work is perceived, how it is done and advance the level of understanding about what the work means to the organization.

Ideally, analytics provide a mix of immediate feedback and an understanding of historical trends. For a branch operations manager, for example, immediate feedback could be a chart of how actual staffing levels compare with scheduled or projected levels. Historically, it might be overall staffing and transaction volume for a rolling 12-month period. A loan officer might see booked loans versus goal for the short term, but weighted yield analysis over time.

Understandable. The world is full of all kinds of art: music, painting, sculpture, theater and literature. Art varies widely across different cultures. While some art is transcendental, most art influences society within the context of a given culture. When removed from one culture and imposed into a different culture, it may be rejected rather than influential.

Analytics succeed or fail within a similar set of contexts. Complex statistical analysis is meaningful only to a tiny universe of people. Others will nod off before understanding the first assumption. Analyzing metrics at a level of detail far below what an employee can control is boring or even depressing rather than illuminating. Analytical measures have to be meaningful to the employees who are being asked to consider them.

Different analytics are useful to different groups within an organization. In the right context, good analytics are welcomed and productive. In the wrong context, they are ignored or cause outright resentment. An analytics engine should support the ability to click on different levels of the organization (e.g. employee, branch, area, region or bank) and automatically total the information for the selected level. A good analytics engine will also be able to change content at different levels. For example, at an employee or branch level, one metric might be comparative workload by employee. That is no longer meaningful at an area or regional level. The metrics shown should change to something meaningful for combined branches, such as overall staff productivity or the mix of transactions.

Evolve over time. Every form of art evolves over time. Some styles go extinct while others continue to be loved over very long periods. New forms are constantly created even when older forms remain. Jazz and rock extended, not replaced, the world of classical music. The evolution is not just of the basic form of the art, but the way in which it is delivered. People today have access to and can appreciate a much broader range of music than people 300 years ago.

Even well designed and presented analytics get stale. As employees gain greater understanding of what a set of analytics mean, they are ready for something more sophisticated. The progression should be incremental, but there needs to be a progression. A comment of, “I already know that”, is the first step to analytics being ignored altogether.

Employees who are provided analytics are an excellent source for determining what to provide next. Monthly operations or branch manager meetings can be a great place to do this. When consumers of analytics are asked what else they want to know, and at least some of their ideas show up, they begin to get a sense of ownership of the information. Discussing analytics in public meetings has the added benefit of helping those who are not utilizing the information to realize that those who are using it have a leg up.

Likability. No one likes all art all the time. Many people love opera and many others cannot stand it. While knowledge and familiarity (think training) may create a few converts, by and large those who do not like it avoid it.

People go out of their way to avoid and ignore things that they dislike on a consistent basis; they also go out of their way to be closer to things that they do like. It may be a bit too much to expect that most people will “like” analytics, but they at least need to not actively dislike them. One effective way to push analytics towards the “like” side of the scale is to emphasize goal achievement more than highlight problems. To accomplish an organization’s goals will probably require a mix of good and bad news. If analytics fall into the trap of reporting mostly problems, they cease being news and simply become background noise.

If possible, analytics should be provided as part of applications that employees use in the normal course of the day. The more they have to make a special effort to launch a program that provides only analytics information, the less likely it will be used frequently. If it is a menu option in an existing program or website, the bar is lowered and frequency will tend to be higher.

Relevance. Art and analytics are both methods for interpreting the world we live in. Bad art and bad analytics are ignored and have no influence on the way that people view their world. Great art can have a profound influence on the way that people perceive and interact with the world around them. Good analytics may not change the world, but they can alter and enhance the way that employees perceive and interact with their work environment.

Under budget pressures, many school systems have cut arts programs. Not investing in a good analytics system may likewise seem an option when a bank faces budget cuts. Here is the essential question: would you rather have employees think about their performance and role in the organization once a year during their review, or every day?

Mr. Basri is President of Mathews, N.C.-based Point Enterprises, Inc. developers of branch office management software solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].