Tesco and M&S show why leaders need to understand data

Traditional firms have access to huge amounts of big data, but they need to know how to translate that into action, says business school academic Tolga Tezcan.

by Tolga Tezcan
Last Updated: 12 Oct 2018

Marks & Spencer – the venerable trademark of British High Street retail – is ramping up its efforts to become a true 21st Century ‘digital-first’ business, with the launch of a new skills initiative to create a national team of data-literate retailers. 

This acme of old-style retail, best remembered for its, ‘This is not just…’ television adverts, aims to take more than 1000 colleagues from every retail function of the business and teach them about data science and supporting technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, in partnership with technology education company Decoded.

Creating its own digital training academy in-house is a significant investment and reflective of the fact that demand for analytically trained managers is currently outstripping supply.

Better technology, machine learning methods, and a massive cultural shift have turned the world of business into a prevailing mission to understand and wield complex data and exploit creative thought and innovation, while scanning for continually evolving commercial opportunities. 

Cue the corporate re-organisations – in every sector – to make better use of data science and analytics. Big players from GE to healthcare providers like the Mayo clinic in the US are transforming their businesses this way.

This is the world of Google, Amazon and Alibaba: companies that are the product of decades of globalisation, disintegration, decentralisation, de-layering and downsizing. They started out as tech start-ups led by technically trained people. They became incredibly successful commercially, and are now worth vastly more than the old giants precisely because they understood not only how to source vast amounts of data, but how to turn it into actionable results. To compete, the more traditional firms are going head to head in a talent war for a very different type of management than they sought 15 or even 10, years ago.

In this brave new world, the winners will be those firms who succeed in finding agile leaders with the imagination and the relationships to turn big data into profit-maximising strategy.

Some, like Tesco, get lucky – their analysts weren’t stuck in a silo. They also had the vision, and business acumen, to see how the results of data analysis could boost profit margins. Many of its senior managers today are the same data analysts, computer programmers and maths graduates the firm hired in the early 2000s when the burst dotcom bubble opened up a new labour market, and Tesco uses analytics to save £100m a year in supply chain costs. But it’s not so easy now to find this critical combination of analytic talent and business insight.

McKinsey’s report on ‘Big data: the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity’, suggests a shortage of 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use big data to make effective decisions in the US alone.

A strong grasp of statistical analysis, an understanding of ‘tech’ such as machine learning, and proficiency in programming is just the beginning. It may be necessary for the creation of a new cohort of leaders capable of transforming entire systems of production, management, and governance, but it is not sufficient.

Large customer-facing organisations like M&S have the potential to gather a huge volume of big data. But big data is meaningless without actionable results. That takes talented managers schooled in the philosophy of experimentation, who understand the problems big data can solve, and how to translate it into a compelling story that both senior management and shareholders will buy into. Without these managers there is a very real risk of big data mountains lying waste.

Government is increasingly concerned with how we protect people’s data, but we should be equally concerned with whether it is being put to useful purpose? It’s here that universities have an important role to play. They must start breaking down the silos between academic disciplines to deliver the multi-skilled data talent industry is after.

Clearly there is high demand for graduates with strong competencies in analytics and business fundamentals who can translate data into keen business insights. So, congratulations to M&S for creating its new academy, but in the dash for data scientists, companies and universities, should mind the talent gap between data mining and application.

Tolga Tezcan, associate professor of management science and operations, teaches on LBS’s Masters in Analytics and Management

Image credit: Matt Brown/Flickr  (creative commons 2.0)

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