‘Next slide, please…’: who would have thought, in the pre-pandemic era, that data presentations from health experts would come to take such a significant role in our daily routines? Or that ‘data, not dates’ would become such a well-known slogan?
For as long as the pandemic is sadly with us, we can expect data’s unprecedented prominence in national discourse to remain at its elevated level. But growing appreciation of the importance of capturing and using data to inform decision-making – already a trend – is likely to continue long after the need diminishes for Professor Chris Whitty’s daily charts and graphs.
In May, to try and help things along, a National Data Strategy Forum was announced by the government ‘to help the country seize the opportunities of data’ and ‘cement the UK’s place as the world’s number one data destination’.
Data will play a key role in ‘levelling up opportunities and prosperity in UK regions by driving innovation and growth’, while businesses would be ‘backed to seize data opportunities’, the government declared.
‘Many lack the skills to extract true value’
Growing recognition of data’s importance is well received by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which has been urging companies to accelerate technology adoption, regardless of their size, and harness the power of data.
Enabling better connections with customers and improving ways of working are just some of the ways that data can be profitably put to use.
While organisations have increased their investment in technology during the pandemic, more than half (56 per cent) of 245 business respondents to a CBI/Microsoft ‘Tech Tracker 2020’ survey said they lack the right skills to extract value from their data. A third (33 per cent) of respondents went further and said that they are unable to make full use of their data to achieve critical goals.
‘Although organisations have access to more data than ever before, many lack the skills to extract true value from it. This must change if the UK is to thrive in a post-Covid, post-Brexit world,’ Rich Ellis, Microsoft UK’s small, medium and corporate business lead, noted in the report.
‘You need people to solve the problems’
Technology is clearly important when it comes to data. But embedding a ‘data-driven strategy’ across an organisation – an increasingly popular refrain in boardrooms – is often easier said than done.
Debra Logan, a vice-president specialising in data at Gartner Research, sees the heightened awareness of data brought about by Covid-19 as leaving a lasting impact in respect of organisations’ engagement with data. “Since the pandemic it’s been clear that numbers matter,” she says.
Structurally, there has been a surge in organisations that are taking data seriously, she says. Using LinkedIn postings to track chief data officer (CDO) numbers, Gartner has found that the number approximately doubled worldwide in the 12 months to December 2020. “In 2012 we tried to count the number of CDOs worldwide and we barely found 100 – today it’s more than 11,000,” says Logan.
But she believes that, within organisations, more emphasis typically needs to be placed on workforces’ understanding of data – what they are looking for in datasets and why – rather than the latest technological developments.
“Technology companies have tended to drive the narrative on data, always saying that ‘tech will sort it out’. It won’t, it never has and never will,” she says. “What has changed, and is creating opportunities, is the amount of data and processing power that’s available. But you need the people to solve the problems.”
“The focus should be on data literacy – encouraging companies to create data-literate workforces,” Logan continues. “Organisations of all sizes should first be asking ‘what are we doing with our data’ and ‘what are we measuring the outcomes of’.”
Technology ‘just one part of the equation’
Mike Fenna, chief technology officer at Avado, makes a similar point, recommending that organisations seeking to properly capitalise on data’s opportunities need to fully embed a data-driven culture throughout their departments and teams.
Developing a way of working in which everyone – from shop-floor workers to top management – not only has the skills but is also encouraged to question decisions based on the data in front of them is crucial, he says.
“Companies often turn to technology to solve their data challenges, but that’s just one part of the equation, and won’t produce results without adding a culture shift to the mix,” says Fenna.
“Empowering people at all levels with data skills and a questioning culture, led both top-down and bottom-up, is the only way of unlocking the technology investment to deliver genuine outcomes,” he adds.