Data & Operations: What is this job & how do I learn to do it?
January 14, 2014 9:08 PM   Subscribe

My job is the suck, but has introduced me to a new itch to scratch. I am growing interested in streamlining processes, unifying data systems, automating tasks, and whipping everything into shape so accurate analysis can happen. I want to use software/data management to help us become more efficient. Who sets this stuff up? What is this job called? I don't have any experience in this, what skills do I need and how can I learn them?

I may never be able to fix the small company that inspired me, but I can use it as an example.

The method we are using ensures we stay buried, and is a perfect job for Sisyphus. Tasks are extraordinarily unintuitive and require manually entering the same data in multiple places. Processing an order to completion involves a lot of paper, several pieces of software, and way too many spreadsheets. Training new staff is difficult and turnover is high. Without much automation, we can't focus on customer service or sales as much as we need to. Billing is arduous, we are behind in sending out invoices, we are late in paying vendors, and our cash flow is affected.

Does this require a build-to-order solution rather than a turnkey system?
Is the answer a database?
Who gets hired to fix these kinds of issues?
What are some job titles for this kind of problem solver?
What can I learn to start doing this at my company and eventually others like it?
posted by mannermode to Work & Money (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Data staging

Take a databases class, and figure out a better data pipeline. There's no reason you should be entering the same data more than once - that's boring, tedious work that a computer should be doing, not a human being.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:15 PM on January 14, 2014

Does this require a build-to-order solution rather than a turnkey system?

Yes, there certainly are turnkey systems for things like order fulfillment and accounts receivable. But your company probably isn't a good candidate for these if you already have computer systems (software) in place (spreadsheets do *not* count).

Is the answer a database? If you're going to avoid entering data multiple times, then yes, the normal way to do that is to have a common database for multiple applications, or to have automated data interfaces between software systems (with individual databases).

Who gets hired to fix these kinds of issues? What are some job titles for this kind of problem solver? Programmers. Data architects. People who do business process reengineering. Consultants. System integrators.

What can I learn to start doing this at my company and eventually others like it? You almost certainly don't have enough free time to start fixing things yourself; you'll be lucky if you have enough time to do a good analysis of the costs (additional software, either turnkey or proprietary code; testing; training) versus the benefits (reduced staffing? improved cash flow - can you quantify?). And then you have to persuade management to actually commit resources to changing things.

You might start by figuring out whether the IT folks in your company (someone maintains the existing systems, yes?) have any interest - or ability - to fix the obviously problematical (duplicate data input). If you can get some success with that, then you can take on things like single screen input and non-intuitive tasks. If you can't, you should seriously think about going elsewhere.
posted by WestCoaster at 9:47 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did this for a job years back. I used Access. We won an award and when I left, they had to pay someone a lot more to do it.

The key really isn't the database--its knowing what information your bosses need. We started to become a real star in our organization because we knew what we needed.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:21 PM on January 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Above and beyond focus on systems, process analysis -- what are the workflows people do to accomplish something one end to the other? What are necessary things to get to end goal, what are value add, what are necessary administratively (because a poorly designed system requires that you enter info redundantly, for example)? What steps can you remove that are unnecessary (can you fix system redundancies, or are you stuck with them)?

Sometimes you'll find that people are extremely resistant to doing things a new streamlined way, even when they make sense -- how do you do change management? "We've always done it old way and it works fine." Except that no, it really, really doesn't. How do you get effective team buy in? How do you get buy in from the decision makers? How do you handle it when you make something efficient enough that someone is left with nothing to do?

Sometimes you can't get buy in from the decision makers, do you have enough interested office cohort to look at the things that you can change across the interested parties? I had a situation a few years ago where my team desperately needed better tools (still do, but business priorities in my case have resulted in arctic molasses movement conditions), but by looking at what we alone could modify to work better, we went from having about 2000 open issues per month to ~500 because we were closing that many more, even without improved tools. What can I/we do Right Now goes a long way. Mapping out the work flows (consider that not everything necessarily might have to happen when it currently happens, might be able to move earlier/later/or be removed entirely, which is always good for getting the office panic bird to freak the hell out!), establishing what has to be done, and what doesn't meet priority criteria along the way helps too. Maybe instead of every last thing, you only do things with five or more dependents and review the four or less dependent things quarterly.

I would say, the necessary task analysis needs to be done first, followed by defining which of those tasks need to be human, and which can be automated, allowing that to define systems and tools that efficiently support end to end task completion. An issue I run into is automation people and developers making assumptions too, that they can automate things that can't be automated because they require human judgment -- and it's ok to require smart human judgment! Think about how to design systems, processes, and automation that allow people to make smarter decisions about the things that cross their plates.

Some of many analysis processes you might want to read up on include Lean Office and the concept of Continuous Improvement. Titles include "consultant", I heard one called a 'continuous improvement associate' once (blech!), manager, if you're focusing on systems then systems analyst, business analysts are used in many ways, database analyst (or engineer sometimes). Titles really run the gamut, especially when you start specializing in a particular area.
posted by susanbeeswax at 1:07 AM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a Sales Operations Analyst. I too take similar but disparate data from a number of sources and I put it together and analyze it so that executives can act on it.

Project Management Professionals do this sort of thing, as do systems analysts. I do my work on a small scale and it impacts on a large platform.

There are programs that click together from sales to order to fulfillment to billing and they do back office stuff too. They are called Enterprise Resouse Planning software. Common vendors are, SAP, Oracle,, etc.

You might enjoy learning one of these ERPs and then become a consultant. The pay is great, you get to travel (yeah, it's Souix Falls, but hey..) and each project can take a year, then you move onto a new project.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:06 AM on January 15, 2014

I'm a Business Analyst and this is a decent piece of what I and my company do. All of my clients are people like Ruthless Bunny in Sales Ops or Analytics or Field Reporting.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:49 PM on January 15, 2014

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