As the first students get underway on the IDM Award in Data Management, David Reed talks to sponsors and companies funding those studies about what they expect to get back from their newly-qualified staff and how the data industry will be changed as a result. “It is about asking the right questions and making sure you have considered the benefits before making recommendations.”
With nearly 300 students already enrolled, the IDM Award in Data Management has clearly found an eager market. Feedback from this first wave has been positive - reassuring for individuals who are intending to pay the modest enrollment cost for themselves.
So what about companies who are funding the course for their team members? What expectations do they have about the payback they can expect from training staff in this way? And will the built-in business focus and Data Management Plan help to drive revenues once those students return with their new qualification?
Proximity London is a sponsor of the Award and also helped to create Module Nine, which focuses on how to build the business case for data management. As such, it might be expected to see benefits from the course.
But Adam Williamson, head of data and analytics at the agency, says the qualification is particularly important to the agency because it fills a gap. “We send people on specialist courses, such as SAS. We also train them in softer skills sets like presentation and negotiation, because even in the data world they need to negotiate with individuals and third-party suppliers,” he says.
“Where I see this fitting in is as a core part of their training. We have got specialists across the department - this provides a core that everything fits around,” says Williamson. He notes that nobody can expect to understand every aspect of data management, yet it is important to have a grasp of all the elements and how they are connected.
On the one hand, an analyst with a specialism in SAS needs some view on data sources and how they might affect data modelling. On the other side, data planners need to be able to discuss models with those analysts and have a grasp of what specialist terms mean. Everybody should grasp the business drivers and goals that lie behind the funding of data management in the first place.
Proximity has already put seven of its team on the course and may make it standard for all 40 in the department, depending on feedback. Williamson says a key aspect of the Award that could see it embedded into the agency is that it is delivered online. “Employees can fit it in when they have got time. There is a reluctance to let people out of the room because they are so important,” he says.
Individual companies have certainly understood the contribution that data management makes to the business. One of the IDM’s objectives in launching the Award is to raise the status of data across the business world as a whole, while ensuring individuals who gain the qualification are recognised as having a valued skills set.
Providing portable skills and a benchmark for them is becoming more essential as individuals increasingly move between different types of business. It used to be that data professionals worked for a client, an agency or a supplier and tended to stay in those sub-sectors. Nowadays there is constant migration between those areas leading to a more rounded understanding, but also a need to show the consistency of how data is being used.
Tim Connor is a good example of this type of career path. Now working in an arts marketing business, he started out in the Rapp agency before moving to work on the data side at Quant and then into digital and direct marketing at OgilvyOne. “The IDM has been crucial to my whole career,” he says.
Having taken a degree in marketing at Leeds, he took the IDM Diploma. For Connor, the new Data Management course expands and adds to this basis. “You need the broader background the Diploma gives you across data and the way it talks about targeting and measurement. The Award then gets into data in a more specialised way,” he says.
As an example of this, he points to Module Three which looks at the technologies used for managing data. “It goes into whether to use an in-house or outsourced solution and provides scenarios where each is appropriate, as well as possible providers. “That is really valuable because it is applicable to whatever company you are in and whichever scale of data you are working with,” says Connor.
The practical nature of the content is particularly appealling as is the holistic focus. As for the Data Management Plan, “it is about asking the right questions and making sure you have considered the benefits before making recommendations. That can be applied even when you are recommending input to a digital campaign or driving email.”
Groupe Aeroplane, which runs the Nectar loyalty scheme, has put four members of its data quality team down for the Award. “To have a programme specifically for data is key in today’s market,” says data quality manager Andrew Bridges. “Over the last five years, companies have come to recognise data as a fundamental asset of the business, for example Nectar and Sainsbury’s. So it is the right time for a qualification in this area.”
As with other companies who are sending multiple students through the Award, Bridges identifies the business focus of the qualification as one of its key strengths. “You can be blinkered by the daily grind. Sometimes, you need to stop and look at data management as a whole. This will encourage staff to bring back good ideas to the company,” he says.
The existing skills base within his company tends to reflect the classic divide in data management: either staff are skilled analysts with a specialist background, or they have a broad data management responsibility but need to interface with those specialists. The Award will provide common ground for both sides.
Within Groupe Aeroplane, there is a Personal Development Review process that encourages training and goal-setting for staff. These are aligned with the company’s annual objectives, so employees can skill up for the right challenges. Taking the Award will be part of that process from now on. “As data ‘geeks’, this will give us a voice in the world,” says Bridges.
Communisis is another sponsor of the course which is also sending multiple individuals through the qualification. Managing director Jon Cano-Lopez is also a member of the IDM Data and Database Council and pushed for the creation of the Award. “There are courses you can get for business or direct marketing in general, such as the IDM Diploma. However, data is quite specialised and yet also broad. There has never been a qualification before, except some courses run by vendors. There was a need for something recognised by the whole industry,” he says.
He notes that many roles within data management can be quite isolated from each other. For example, a team may simply be responsible for processing data without understanding what the business goals for that data might be. As purely technical staff, they may not have been trained in database or direct marketing. Equally, account managers need to learn what the business of data management is all about, including the technical concerns.
“We need people who understand the whole market, rather than just one company. If staff are moving from one place to another, it is useful if they have a standard understanding of working practices and issues, such as data protection or differences between customer and prospect data. Then they will deliver better outcomes,” says Cano-Lopez.
He recalls how taking the IDM Diploma at the start of his career changed his way of thinking, having started life as a programmer using Cobol. “I hope this will do the same for people coming into the industry now because they will know to a certain level about statistical techniques, data processing and why companies want to do those things,” he says.
Iain Lovatt, executive chairman of Blue Sheep, is a former member of the same IDM Council who also pushed for a qualification. His business is putting four students onto the course. “There has been a need for something like this for a long time, particularly for marketers to help them understand data. It has got more complex, from the basics of name and address to behavioural data and other sorts of information collected online,” he points out.
“Data is a technical subject, so marketing is beholden to ‘techies’ to tell it what it can or can’t do,” says Lovatt. “Data is becoming more valuable, even as a by-product to a company’s main activity. Marketers need to understand how to hold, use, maintain and secure that asset.”
With constant changes to both the nature of data and the legislation governing it, such as the latest revision to the E-Privacy Directive, Lovatt belies that an online qualification is well placed to keep students up-to-date, even after they have graduated. As demand for data-literate employees grows, it will also provide a feeder route for those who want to re-qualify themselves or validate their knowledge.
Over time, a new cadre of data professionals should emerge who hold the IDM Award as a standard part of their skills base. Not only will that support the new data-oriented nature of business, it should also make them more effective. And on top of that, Lovatt notes, having others who are as interested in the details of data management, “will make the office less lonely for me!”