by Mark Samuels

How CIOs distill the most sought-after data skills

Feature
May 31, 20238 mins
Data CenterIT LeadershipIT Skills

From back-end engineers to data scientists and line-of-business experts, here’s the in-demand talent that all organizations need to turn a glut of information into game-changing insight.

Business man as a consultant in a meeting in the consulting workshop in the office at the conference table
Credit: Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock

Almost every CIO says the same thing: data is the key to creating a competitive advantage. As many as 88% of IT decision makers believe the collection and analysis of data has the potential to fundamentally change the way their company does business over the next three years, according to Foundry’s 2022 Data & Analytics study.

However, collecting and analyzing data is just the starting point. Businesses that want to make the most of the data they collect need talented people who can use technology to turn information into effective insight. So, what are pioneering digital leaders doing to adapt and meet this challenge head-on, and what data skills are needed to effect desired outcomes?

Going backward to move forward

Recruiter Nash Squared’s findings also show that digital leaders believe data is crucial to delivering a competitive advantage, and its annual digital leadership report refers to data as “the gem in the digital economy.”

However, while the importance of data is recognizsed, the recruiter’s research suggests that polishing these gems is a challenge. Only 21% of digital leaders feel their business is very or extremely effective at using data insights to generate revenue.

So there’s an inconsistency: businesses know data is important, yet they don’t necessarily know how to make the most of it. Bev White, CEO at Nash Squared, says the reasons for this contradiction are complicated.

“Taking people on a journey often requires you to get your own house in order first,” she says, “Businesses can have a lot of data, but it can be very disconnected and inconsistent. So if you’re really going to take advantage of it, you have to go backward to go forward.”

For some people, that backward-looking view might seem like a retrograde step. In an age of bountiful data and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), why would businesses focus on the less sexy areas of underlying infrastructure and data pipelines?  

The reason, quite simply, is that firms will struggle to turn information into insight without solid data foundations. Tech analyst Forrester warned five years ago there was a risk companies were forgetting to invest in the engineering capability that would help scientists create value from data.

Today, digital leaders recognize that an investment in foundational capability is more crucial than ever. Foundry’s research also suggests some of the most important skills digital leaders need to support their analytics programs are data management, data integration, data architecture, and data engineering.

For smart CIOs, going backward involves developing in-house engineering capability to ensure people across the business have access to trusted information sources. Take the example of Barry Panayi, chief data and insight officer at John Lewis Partnership.

“Ten years ago, it was all about ‘become a data scientist,’” he says. “But actually, you’ve got to become a data engineer now. I want data people who have a software engineering-like mindset. That’s because you’re building product. Everything’s a product now with data.”

Panayi is working with his data engineers and Snowflake technology to create an integrated approach to enterprise information, a single version of the truth from which to deliver useful analytics. “Then all your data is in a joined-up ecosystem, rather than having to rely on the disparate structures of the past,” he says.

Jeff Singman, executive VP of technology at Arkos Health, is another digital leader who believes in getting the right foundations in place. His organization manages data from a diverse range of sources, whether from hospital platforms or an app on a patient’s cell phone.

“When you really pick it apart, you’ve got to have the mechanism to capture, normalize and transform data,” he says. “I certainly want data engineers. And it’s not just about ingestion. It’s about data modelling and data schemas. So you need everything from focusing on feeds and capture, to a set of capabilities that deal with normalization.”

Creating insight from information

The message so far is straightforward: CIOs need talented data managers who can ensure enterprise data is integrated and organized. Once this overload of structured and unstructured data is in order, they then need experts who can help turn information into insight. And as various digital leaders testify, that’s where the really tough challenge begins.

“The key is getting insight out of data,” says Prakash Rao, group head of supply chain projects at retail and hospitality giant Landmark Group. “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? When you have information, there’s so many actions that can come out of it—and, if you get those actions right, it all leads to improvement.”

Rao says the search for people who could turn information into insight 15 years ago might have been centered on Excel expertise. Today, his business—like 30% of digital leaders in Foundry’s research—is prioritizing on the hunt for talented data scientists.

Marc Jennings, CIO of analytics and AI at holiday firm TUI, says data science skills, such as Python, SQL and R, are high on his most-wanted list. Yet he also recognizes that technical skills are just one element of well-rounded data professionals.

“What we recruit for at TUI is not just the skills, but also the attitude,” he says. “We look for curious people who keep asking, ‘Why?’ I want people who are going to get to the bottom of the challenge. Technical skills are fine, but you’re only going to help me so much.”

That’s a sentiment that chimes with Daniel Smith, global head of analytics and insights at clothing brand Pangaia. He sees a lot of candidates who are strong from a back-end point of view. But where they’re weaker is in data visualization, and the increasing connection between IT and business means that lack of proficiency is an issue.

“The business functions are going to come up with questions,” says Smith. “If your expertise is all on the data science side and not in visualization, there’s not going to be many people in the business who will get what you’re talking about.”

Bob Michael, head of data at retailer DFS, is another digital leader who wants great communicators. Yes, he has strong data management and analytics capability internally, but he also needs these technology specialists to be the curators of data and datasets.

Success is all about providing the right tools to people in the business so they can dip into trusted data sources and answer their own questions quickly and effectively. “Basically, I don’t want a large team of 400 people,” says Michael. “I want to shape the way people in the business use data. Ultimately, data must be just part of the business. I’m not looking for data scientists and statisticians who cannot communicate because they can’t help my cause from a data management point of view.” 

Helping the business to help itself

And there’s the rub: the key to turning information into insight is ensuring people across the business have the tools and the confidence to work with data. Further proof comes from Foundry’s research, which suggests the most important data skill for digital leaders is analytics training for non-IT staff, noted by 41% of survey respondents.

Mary O’Callaghan, director of technology engagement at British Heart Foundation, says the best way forward is for data executives and their teams to take a collegiate approach. Data professionals, such as CDOs, analysts, scientists and engineers, must work alongside their business peers to help them exploit information.

“Before people start thinking about how they use Power BI, they need to know how to ask the right questions,” she says. “Sometimes I think it’s just about confidence because, in their functional areas, people are very confident and they know what they’re doing. I think we need to let people in the business ask questions and then work with them to find answers.”

That’s a sentiment that resonates with Caroline Carruthers, former CDO for the UK’s Network Rail, and now CEO of Carruthers + Jackson. Her consultancy firm’s recently released Data Maturity Index reports that almost two-thirds of data leaders believe most or almost all employees in their organization are not data literate.

That’s a problem because enterprises with strong data literacy are most likely to understand that information is not just the preserve of specialist data teams. Carruthers says digital leaders must work to build an organization-wide data culture.

“Less is often more when it comes to data,” she says. “Using data effectively isn’t just about numbers. It’s the other things that we can tell people—it’s the insight and the guidance. It’s about creating a smart pile of data for people to stand on so they can do their jobs better.”

What’s clear, says Ashley Cairns, delivery director at Carruthers + Jackson, is that the importance of being able to turn information into insight is only going one way: upward. So, whether you’re a back-end engineer or a front-end customer service specialist, everyone in the business must develop a mature approach to information.

“Data is going to be a part of your everyday working life,” she says. “Success is about giving everyone critical thinking and the ability to provide context to the story that they’re telling.”

by Mark Samuels