CoolData blog

2 December 2013

How to learn data analysis: Focus on the business

Filed under: Training / Professional Development — Tags: , , , — kevinmacdonell @ 6:17 am

A few months ago I received an email from a prospect researcher working for a prominent theatre company. He wanted to learn how to do data mining and some basic predictive modeling, and asked me to suggest resources, courses, or people he could contact. 

I didn’t respond to his email for several days. I didn’t really have that much to tell him — he had covered so many of the bases already. He’d read the  book “Data Mining for Fund Raisers,”  by Peter Wylie, as well as “Fundraising Analytics: Using Data to Guide Strategy,” by Joshua Birkholz. He follows this blog, and he keeps up with postings on the Prospect-DMM list. He had dug up and read articles on the topic in the newsletter published by his professional association (APRA). And he’d even taken two statistics course — those were a long time ago, but he had retained a basic understanding of the terms and concepts used in modeling.

He was already better prepared than I was when I started learning predictive modeling in earnest. But as it happened, I had a blog post in draft form (one of many — most never see the light of day) which was loosely about what elements a person needs to become a data analyst. I quoted a version of this paragraph in my response to him:

There are three required elements for pursuing data analysis. The first and most important is curiosity, and finding joy in discovery. The second is being shown how to do things, or having the initiative to find out how to do things. The third is a business need for the work.

My correspondent had the first element covered. As for the second element, I suggested to him that he was more than ready to obtain one-on-one training. All that was missing was defining the business need … that urgent question or problem that data analysis is suited for.

Any analysis project begins with formulating the right question. But that’s also an effective way to begin learning how to do data analysis in the first place. Knowing what your goal is brings relevance, urgency and focus to the activity of learning.

Reflect on your own learning experiences over the years: Your schooling, courses you’ve taken, books and manuals you’ve worked your way through. More than likely, this third element was mostly absent. When we were young, perhaps relevance was not the most important thing: We just had to absorb some foundational concepts, and that was that. Education can be tough, because there is no satisfying answer to the question, “What is the point of learning this?” The point might be real enough, but its reality belongs to a seemingly distant future.

Now that we’re older, learning is a completely different game, in good ways and bad. On the bad side, daily demands and mundane tasks squeeze out most opportunities for learning. Getting something done seems so much more concrete than developing our potential. 

On the good side, now we have all kinds of purposes! We know what the point is. The problems we need to solve are not the contrived and abstract examples we encountered in textbooks. They are real and up close: We need to engage alumni, we need to raise more money, we need, we need, we need.

The key, then, is to harness your learning to one or more of these business needs. Formulate an urgent question, and engage in the struggle to answer it using data. Observe what happens then … Suddenly professional development isn’t such an open-ended activity that is easily put off by other things. When you ask for help, your questions are now specific and concrete, which is the best way to generate response on forums such as Prospect-DMM. When you turn to a book or an internet search, you’re looking for just one thing, not a general understanding.

You aren’t trying to learn it all. You’re just taking the next step toward answering your question. Acquiring skills and knowledge will be a natural byproduct of what should be a stimulating challenge. It’s the only way to learn.


The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,221 other followers

%d bloggers like this: