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The importance of formulating a decisive data strategy

Jonathan Westley, Chief Data Officer, Experian UK & EMEA


Data is key for businesses to survive the immediate fallout from the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended economies, irrevocably changed consumer behavior, and forced businesses to change the way they operate.

While in many ways it has pressed pause on our lives, in other ways the pandemic has initiated G-force inducing acceleration, fast tracking the digitalization of our economy and our transition towards a digital marketplace.

If businesses are to survive the immediate fallout from the pandemic and thrive into the future, they have to understand their new, post-Covid landscape. And this is where data is key. Data can help businesses identify and comprehend shifts in customer behaviour, and better understand the rapidly evolving marketplace in which they operate.

But for this vision to materialize, business leaders need to get a decisive data strategy in place – and ensure all employees are on board with this. Here’s some focus areas that data leaders, and more broadly businesses, should consider to create a pathway to success.

1. Consistent data standards

For years we have known that data standardization is key to organizations unlocking the value of their own data, and ultimately entering the data ecosystem. However, many organizations still have a long way to go, and need to place fresh emphasis on creating data standards that all employees understand and comply with.

There is significant opportunity for business leaders and industry players to work closely with government to assist in this, by creating a set of standards for treating and referencing data. Initially these could cover priority areas, including identity indicators and standards around cleaning and validating data.

Agreeing on a common approach to these would help employees understand the rules of data handling, increasing their data competence and confidence. As a result, organizations would be better positioned to take control of their own data, paving the way to greater data sharing both internally, across departments, and externally with other organizations.

2. Developing better data skills

Any discussion about the data skill shortage often turns to what schools and universities are doing, but we need to broaden our perspective if we’re to adequately tackle this challenge.

Business leaders need to consider how they can expand their talent pools by becoming better employers to diverse people. While the discussion around diversity and inclusion often focuses on gender and ethnicity, there is a strong case to be made for improving neurodiversity within organizations too.

For example, Asperger’s can be an advantage in certain jobs, particularly those involving data analytics. But conventional recruitment practices work against those with the condition.

If employers want to close the growing skills gaps and access innovative and creative employees, they need to implement policies and processes that give all types of people an equal chance to succeed.

3. Cascading data knowledge

But it’s not just about bringing new, data literate employees on board. Organizations need to do more to communicate their data strategy, the importance of this and the necessity for all employees to build their data skills. Failure to do so could see data knowledge concentrated in the hands of a few, who are then relied upon to support the entire business. This is unsustainable and can lead to issues if these people move elsewhere.

One organization tackling this issue head-on is UK-based retailer Marks & Spencer. In 2018, it partnered with Decoded to create the world’s first Data Academy in retail. The program aims to support the business’ digital transformation, by building the necessary skillsets from the ground up. Employees can enroll in an 18 month in-work data science skills program, where they learn to adopt and apply data analytics tools and technologies such as machine learning.

More recently, this program has expanded even further with the launch of a new entry-level Data Technician course that teaches employees how to manipulate, scrutinize and then translate that data into valuable insights.

Succeeding post-pandemic  

At a time of great uncertainty, what is clear is that we are not going back to the way we were all doing business before. Just a few decades ago, businesses would have slowly picked themselves up and gradually established the long-term implications of the pandemic for their operating models. In 2021, data can fast-track this process by delivering the insights businesses need to confidently adapt and succeed in their new landscape.

However, they will not be able to access or make use of these insights unless they have the necessary skills and processes in place. Business leaders can lay the foundations for future success by implementing a considered data strategy. But to build on this, they will need to bring the entire organization on board.