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Has there ever been a more difficult three-year period for building and maintaining the optimal workforce? Three years ago, with the global economy hitting on all cylinders, the hiring market was tight but largely stable. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with many industries pausing to retool for pandemic operating conditions, and mass layoffs ensued. 2021 brought the Great Resignation with large numbers of employees — including often very long-tenured employees — moving on to try new opportunities. And now, we are seeing signs of a recession.

We know that in order to survive an economic downturn, organizations need all the help they can get from their data. However, data scientists have been in short supply since the role became common in organizations over a decade ago, and the problem has only been exacerbated over the past three years. With a skills gap and talent shortage, leaders will need to find creative solutions without tapping their already strapped IT departments. 

Capitalizing on available data requires connectivity between business systems and processes, to allow data to be leveraged across silos, making access to the best available data as simple as possible. This is fundamentally an IT function. In addition to an active data management strategy, getting the full value from your data requires a workforce that includes trained and empowered “citizen analysts.” While many organizations have traditionally tried to build out sufficient data scientist capacity, using citizen analysts provides a more scalable workforce for realizing the value of your organization’s data. And pockets of citizen analysts likely already exist in your organization today, but they need to be upskilled. 

How to upskill your non-technical workforce

Technical ability is often not a significant factor in the success of a citizen analyst. Instead, successful citizen analysts are those with a strong intuition of how to deal with uncertainty with data, combined with a desire to analyze possible paths forward and then to use data to point to the best path. 

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The most successful citizen analysts possess the following five characteristics that you can tap into when upskilling.

Natural curiosity

Natural curiosity and a genuine interest in problem-solving drive a citizen analyst to spend the necessary time parsing through data and crafting more informed solutions. Managers can encourage natural curiosity by asking employees to talk through alternative approaches and the pros and cons of each. In doing so, employees are rewarded for having investigated several possible avenues before landing on a path forward with an understanding of the risks and benefits of their chosen path.

Sense of empowerment

Feeling true ownership of and the freedom to use information you need in decision-making empowers citizen analysts to tackle challenges head-on. Empowerment can be fostered through open-ended assignments. For example, a citizen analyst might be asked to review last month’s financial results and to present changes and possible causes in comparison to prior months. The task assignment does not prescribe how the work will be done but does require the citizen analyst to review available information and develop conclusions.     

Bias toward action in a world of uncertainty

Available information is rarely complete and fully accurate. Individuals with a bias towards action are more willing to assess the quality and completeness of the information at hand and decide how logical it is to rely on that information. Organizations create a supportive environment for bias towards action in uncertainty through open discussions about the inputs that have gone into decision-making and acknowledging and accepting when a chosen path forward is justifiably based on knowledge and experience (often referred to as “gut feel”) rather than hard facts.

The citizen analyst: Willingness to see the situation as it is

Data often reveals new insights, and challenges beliefs accepted as facts. It’s important to be open-minded in order to come to new realizations and challenge the status quo, which is important when facing uncertainty in your business. 

Storytelling abilities are critical for a citizen analyst

Making persuasive recommendations to support decision-making requires citizen analysts to be able to craft and present compelling stories that incorporate data so that everyone can understand, which is as much an art as science.

Creating a supportive culture for the citizen analyst

Once identified, citizen analysts can be nurtured through a combination of competency development and creating a supportive culture for data-driven decision-making. Introductory courses on data science, storytelling and risk management appropriate for upskilling citizen analysts are readily available on most of the large commercial learning platforms. Additionally, you’ll need to adopt critical cultural changes, as highlighted above, to empower and reward citizen analysts for leveraging data as part of their day-to-day activities. 

In the short term, hiring data scientists and other technology workers may become easier than it is right now, but we have enough history to know that technology workers are often in short supply. Taking a multi-pronged approach to both talent acquisition and upskilling your existing employee base will allow you to weather the uncertainty that lies ahead and be prepared for the next major resignation or consolidation. 

Julie Furt is VP of Global Delivery at Talend 

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