The art of data science has the ability to transform businesses, and should be learnt and understood more broadly, says Chris Greenwood of NetApp
Data science is still seen as the domain of a skilled few – giving great power to those with the data literacy, knowledge, and skill to wield it. Today, that mystique still exists, but the rise of smart data and artificial intelligence (AI) is making this field more accessible to everyone.
The opportunity is clear: data has the potential to help us in every walk of life, but the context is critical. For those looking to harness its power, it is first about understanding where to find the right information before analysing it to formulate the best outcomes.
Making sense of the new normal
Due to seismic events such as Brexit and Covid-19, uncertainty has become the new normal. Making sense of the world around us, as well as preparing for other unknowns, has never been more important. In the wake of the global pandemic, the UK government outlined its National Data Strategy, highlighting the importance of data within digital transformation. It specifically calls out the interconnectivity issues that prevent the use of data in the best way. This includes what it calls “data foundations”, highlighting the need for data to be fit for purpose to maximise its value. It also covers data availability – ensuring data is accessible, mobile, and reusable. Responsible data is also an important part of the strategy, underlining the need for information to be secure, ethical, and sustainable.
But for anybody sat beyond the CTO’s office, much of this may not mean a huge amount. That is because data literacy is in short supply, and this needs to change. Despite there being over 980 different data science programmes available at higher-education institutions, there still aren’t enough data scientists to meet the demand.
Digital transformation has only accelerated over the last 18 months and this has been achieved by pushing through several years’ worth of change in just one year. It has led to an increased focus on both cloud technologies and collaboration suites, making access to data easier than ever before.
But if employees don’t know what to look for, how to understand it, and most importantly, how to action it, businesses will have missed a massive opportunity.
Better data analysis could help make crucial time-savings, for example, anticipating spikes in customer demand, or even identifying innovative ways to sell to new or existing customers.
People are at the centre of maximising the potential from data. Without the right skills to draw upon, a lack of data literacy will hold businesses back.
Levelling up data literacy
How can businesses give their employees the skills to wield the power of data? Normally, this starts at the top, by hiring individuals with the necessary expertise. Companies are recognising this need, which is in turn fuelling a global demand for data scientists and analysts.
LinkedIn’s most recent “Jobs on the Rise” report highlights a boom in AI and data science roles across most major European countries. We have also seen the emergence of new jobs at a senior level: chief digital and chief data officers. But after acquiring the talent to help shape the future digital strategy and direction of an organisation, we believe other employees should be reskilled with data literacy training and the tools to do the job. A data-driven culture can then be cultivated from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down.
At an organisational level, this can be as simple as ensuring that every employee understands where to find and access the data sets that inform their everyday decisions. It could be understanding what sales leads to prioritise, or where resources need to be allocated to drive a big project.
For me, this is about empowering people to find ways to unlock the potential of data in their teams and day-to-day roles. It requires the right skills and confidence to do so – but this will support any business going for growth in the recovery from the pandemic.
Understanding AI’s potential as a first step
The rapid advancement of automation and AI technology means there is now a much lower barrier of entry when it comes to making sense of data. A common complaint among data scientists is the quantity of time they spend looking for, cleaning, and moving data. By many accounts, up to 80% of a data scientist’s time is spent on these kinds of tasks.
Rather than needing to sift through masses of information manually, the technology is there to do the heavy lifting. Combining these tools with better data literacy will arm a workforce with everything it needs to harness the full power of their data.
In this sense, better data literacy could be a far more impactful demonstration of AI’s power than the niche glory projects. While grand AI projects look good on the company website, they achieve little in terms of tangible improvements to the business.
Making a hundred processes better, or a thousand decisions a little more accurately informed, is a better way of empowering employees. Simply put, the tools exist today to achieve this, but they must be combined with the right training and leadership from the top.
It is clear that any business has the potential to lift the curtain on data. What once appeared like a trick performed by a skilled few, can now be delivered by employees of any level with technology filling the gap to allow them to make more from the data in their roles.
Rather than a magical power, data could instead be viewed as a “force of nature” that can be learnt, understood, and managed. In an increasingly connected world, anyone and anything creates data just by existing. It means there’s the potential for anyone to harness data to create a competitive advantage, or just to make life easier.
Businesses using data effectively can inform strategic decision-making as well as streamline day-to-day operations and low-level tasks. Those who realise this simple fact will be more profitable than those that don’t. Embracing the power of data will create new ideas, derive future value, and formulate more innovative ways of doing business in the future.
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