How To Turn Data-Diving Into Strategy Creation

A new team at Directions Credit Union focuses on objectives as much as dashboards.

Directions Credit Union ($1.2B, Toledo, OH) is a couple of years into taking its data-crunching work on an enterprise-wide journey that focuses on direction as much as dashboards.

The cooperative’s new data and strategics insight team focuses on helping stakeholders in every department use facts and figures to think and act strategically. The team is directed by Dan Kubacki, who worked at Directions for more than two decades before becoming vice president of strategic insights, data science, and engineering.

There’s a specific intentionality to that title: It speaks to Kubacki and his team’s approach to answering colleagues’ queries with more than just numbers and charts.

Dan Kubacki, VP, Strategic Insights, Data Science, And Engineering, Directions Credit Union

When did Directions set up the data analytics operation?

Dan Kubacki: The data and strategic insights team was formed just under two years ago. There had been data and analytics projects for a long time within the marketing department, but the scope of the projects has changed both in depth and in number of departments served.

What challenges and opportunities does the team address?

DK: Data had previously resided in the marketing department when reporting was done primarily via our MCIF system. As data requests increased, became more sophisticated, and served departments beyond marketing, we began looking at ways to improve our efficiency and to answer a wider range of questions. We invested in a data warehouse to provide a centralized source of data and to enable more data governance and consistency in metrics organization-wide.

Please describe the creation of the division itself.

DK: We followed the lead of other organizations, both within the credit union industry and out, but adapted things for our own environment and kept it flexible enough to respond to changes in vendors and data sources. I spent a great deal of time researching how data teams were set up in public institutions and reviewed a great deal of information at hours were spent reading and adopting things others had done to find something that would work for us. We are “standing on the shoulders of giants” with respect to our approach to data.

Who was involved in the creation of the division? What were their roles?

DK: The team was established as part of an organization-wide realignment, so it’s fair to say everyone in the organization was involved. Being founded during the organizational realignment helped establish an immediate legitimacy and signaled the importance of data and analytics to the future of Directions Credit Union.

Our CEO, Barry Shaner, placed the team under Sonja Delaney, our chief strategy officer, which has also been important in establishing data as a strategic asset belonging to the organization and members, rather than any single department. The view of data as critical to strategy is explicitly enabled and empowered. It’s also helpful in reducing data ownership barriers and in establishing a holistic view of the member and the various sources of data in the organization.

How is the new team structured?

DK: There are three members of the team. I’m the vice president for strategic insights and data science and engineering, which has been valuable in working with heads of other teams, both in collaboration and visibility. This has provided much greater awareness of the capabilities of our team.

Reporting to me are two senior data analysts. They’ve also been members of the team since its inception and thus have become familiar with both the data resources and tools at Directions and have acquired the domain knowledge that is specific to credit unions.

I believe that domain knowledge and organizational familiarity are extremely important. The analysts respond to ticket requests from the organization. And, as I mentioned before, that domain knowledge helps in knowing what questions to ask to begin the analysis and has reduced frustration for both the team and those requesting the analysis.

If not for the experience within the team, I don’t know that we could operate as efficiently with only the three of us.

What software do you use? Who uses it?

DK: We use Tableau within the data team to explore data and produce dashboards. We use Alteryx to join data sources and to automate data joining for sources that are not currently residing in our data warehouse. Often, the output is fairly basic and digestible — Excel workbooks, tables, lists. For strategic discussion or investigation, we create more fully developed dashboards.

5 Ways To Focus On Strategy + Data

Dan Kubacki, vice president for strategic insights, data science, and engineering at Directions Credit Unionoffers five best practices he has gleaned from his new team’s work in strategy and data.

  1. Speak up. Kubacki writes articles for the credit union’s monthly newsletter to bring awareness to how the team can help while making the team’s capabilities easier to remember.
  2. Be considerate. Give careful consideration to what the data is and isn’t saying.
  3. Answer the question at hand. Don’t fall into the trap of answering a complicated question by answering a different, simpler question.
  4. Keep purpose in mind. Understand the difference between data exploration and data storytelling. Be clear about which mode you are in and use each appropriately. This is very important for credibility and trust.
  5. Always keep learning. Read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and other books like it. For Kubacki, this book was the most influential on his approach to data.

What kind of reports does the division produce? Who uses them?

DK: Our focus is on responding to questions and developing insights. There are reports built into our core or various business line systems, and we don’t typically replace those without good reason. During the past few years, there has been a lot of emphasis on building reporting and dashboards to help mitigate fraud. Certainly, the pandemic has also brought lots of new types of analysis about how members’ interactions with us changed over the past couple of years.

How would you describe the results so far?

DK: The data team has aided in decision-making and allowed for better use of our members’ resources. We have used it to better understand what the members want and how they want it.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned? Why?

DK: Be adaptable, and don’t be too comfortable. The environment is rapidly changing, and the ability to make changes quickly is important. Be alert to opportunities to reinforce the concepts of data governance and data culture.

How do you see the division growing in terms of staff and function? In what time frame?

DK: I could anticipate us potentially adding a person or two within the next two years. The workload is steady, but our first strategy is to automate processes where possible rather than add staff. We implemented a ticketing system to keep track of requests and will monitor that over time to demonstrate the need for additional team members.

Within the team, certain team members specialize a little more heavily in working with one department versus another. Adding redundancy or the ability to have more expertise in an area could also drive additions to our team. The need for staff would likely increase if we began doing new types of analysis or working with more departments. As different teams in the organization see what we can do for them, demand for our services and expertise grows.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


August 29, 2022

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