Data skills will solve Britain’s productivity puzzle

Ray Eitel-Porter

Data has the potential to transform the economy, increase efficiency and create new opportunities for innovation.

The Data Skills Taskforce has found that the UK is in a strong position to reap the rewards of our increasingly data rich lives. But despite growing recognition that data is a valuable resource for companies, and burgeoning government support for digital skills, the UK’s potential is not yet being met. Why?

In short, there are cultural, educational and financial barriers, all of which need to be tackled.

There are businesses which have proven the clear link between data, business innovation and productivity. Take the online retailers we visit every day as an example of using data to evolve and provide a better service. In a world where we generate data every time we shop or communicate online, intelligent businesses can quickly turn information into value. But those that do are in a minority. Many have not yet embraced the data revolution. In fact, almost a third of companies work with very limited data sets and rarely use analysis to make decisions. Most sit in between the two extremes, with their toes in the water, and so not yet seeing the full benefits.

We must encourage companies to foster a ‘data native’ culture to avoid missed opportunities. The change must come from the top. Business leaders must be seen to embrace data and analytics, and drive adoption across their organisations. They can start by putting in place the right infrastructure and tools, from simple data dashboards to complex machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. This will start conversations and inspire action.

Leaders alone won’t affect the changes we need as a country, however. They need to set the environment for people with the right skills to succeed. But demand for these people is rapidly outstripping supply. Industry statistics suggest that 62 per cent of companies will require more big data capabilities between now and 2019, and that by 2030 data analytics will account for the majority of UK digital vacancies.

New funding from government and research bodies has helped to develop specialist data science degree programmes and other educational opportunities. Thousands of students are benefitting, but we need to do more further down the education pathway.

One of the top priorities must be to show that data skills help to develop a dynamic, fulfilling and well-paid career. There are fundamental misunderstandings about what a career in data science looks like, with many thinking it’s a career of lab coats or “boring maths” and working in isolation. In fact, finding the key to the next Hollywood blockbuster, or boosting performance in motor racing are both responsibilities of data scientists. The former is something that school-aged children can find out more about through the Data Science Award from Teen Tech: an exciting new opportunity for school students to try their hand with data and analysis. The latter is something we’re currently doing with Ducati.

Education on what data science is and how to do it will make sure that when people hit the workforce they understand the opportunities and can engage with the digital market. Achieving that requires teachers who can inspire and inform the next generation, and concerted efforts by policymakers, educators and businesses to raise awareness of data science career opportunities for young people.

We need to support financial initiatives that raise this awareness. We also need to fund research programmes and organisations, such as the Turing Institute, which can help propel the UK into a global leadership position. Facilitating new ideas will make the UK an engine room for digital innovation and provide a blueprint for others to follow.

These are the key principles identified in a new report from the Data Skills Taskforce, a group created to track how UK business is fulfilling its digital potential. We firmly believe that by demonstrating the value of data, promoting career opportunities in data science, and developing links between government, business and educators, we can deliver a thriving, outward-looking digital economy that drives productivity and economic growth for the UK.

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