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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How to Improve Your Analytical Skills

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Successful businessman Warren Buffett named analytical skills among the most important skills for young people to become successful. Analytical skills are among the top five skills frequently sought by small companies, large corporations and organizations around the world. Therefore, the world’s top universities attempt to differentiate themselves by focusing on building and developing analytical skills. And yet, while many students are keen to develop their analytical skills, they often struggle to develop, demonstrate and use these skills in workplace situations.

Here is how you can make the most of your time at university to improve your analytical skills.

1. Understand what is meant by “analytical skills”.

There are as many definitions of analytical skills as there are application areas. In general, most experts, teachers and trainers talk about the ability to deal with information in deductive and/or inductive ways. Sometimes, it is an ability to collect, visualize and analyze information to see the bigger picture or trend behind facts. In other cases, it is an ability to take big pieces of information, or the “big picture” of a situation, and deconstruct them to identify the details, as well as the systematic trends or links, which bring them together.

2. Participate in analysis-based student projects.

Almost every year my students work on practical policy-related in-class projects jointly with partner institutions. For example, we had a project analyzing the success of Silicon Valley’s technoparks in order to assess the applicability of that experience in the environment of research universities in Kazakhstan. The idea was to take big pieces of information about the success of several technoparks around San Francisco and deconstruct the data to see practical policy trends and micro-steps, which could explain how the innovative system actually works in technoparks and what should be done to learn from that experience.

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Our current student-led project is about analyzing the work of small technoparks in Kazakhstan, including a technopark at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (Al-Farabi KazNU). The main idea is not only to exercise analytical tools and analytical work at our MDP/Global Classroom program but also to come up with a big picture for the university and for all interested and inspired student-startuppers about how to improve the efficiency of their startup projects and discuss the formation of innovative and workable networks and infrastructures of technoparks.

3. Start with a clear framework.

When we talk about developing analytical skills and applying them to our projects, there is often a temptation among students to jump straight into analysis. However, good analytical work requires students to follow some protocol, procedures and a well-established plan, and that is especially important in the era of information revolution, as we have sometimes too much information on important topics. I always advise my students that the first rule is to start with the basics and foundations and not skip the first step: reading textbooks, articles and other materials in order to come to a common understanding of the general types of analytical skills and analytical tools that we need for our projects.

4. Focus on the analytical skills relevant to the project.

The second rule I have is that students also need to develop subject-specific or project-specific analytical skills, or perhaps interdisciplinary analytical skills. In the case of students at Al-Farabi KazNU working on the assessment of small technoparks in Kazakhstan, interdisciplinary analytical skills were needed. This is because the report on KazNU and other technoparks required analysis not only of the policy aspect of establishing and running these technoparks, but also managerial, commercial and legal aspects of successes and failures.

5. Practice your analytical skills regularly.

One secret of long-term success in analytical work lies in developing and strengthening analytical skills and practicing them regularly in order to maintain the quality of analysis and indeed the quality of the analytical mind. Some people claim that analytical skills are a gift given by nature, while others say that it is the intellectual environment around a person that shapes these abilities. In my view both of these assumptions are off the mark – analytical skills are talents that can and should be seen as soft technical skills. Thus, these skills should be developed through regular exercises – from “mind games” like Sudoku and chess and computer strategy games, to academic studies where a student evaluates different pieces of information for identifying trends and strategies.

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6. Identify analytical tools that can help.

For group projects (and for individual efforts too) students can acquire specific analytical tools that will enable them to run a successful analysis. For our purposes, our MDP/Global classroom students at Al-Farabi KazNU often use a tool dubbed the “analytical decision tree”. An analytical decision tree is commonly used in policy research and especially in decision-making analysis. This analytical tool uses a graph or model to analyze the chain of decisions and their possible consequences, and visualize them with a tree-like graphic focusing on policy/action outcomes and resource costs, in order to identify a strategy to reach desirable goals.

7. Seek feedback and new ways to develop.

Creative students in my class regularly look for innovative ways to develop and strengthen their analytical skills. And one of the best ways is to work on group projects, discussing these projects within the group and presenting them to a larger audience. The feedback or what we call “bouncing ideas” between team-members or just friends – both positive and critical – help form self-assessment of analytical skills to work on sharpening and improving them. Famous businessperson and practical management guru Mr. Lee Iacocca once said: “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you cannot get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere!”

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