How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?
I’m lucky enough to be a non-exec of a retail business and co-founder of a data-oriented start-up, so I get to see the role of data and analytics in organisations from multiple perspectives. What is increasingly clear is that using analytics to optimise every part of the operation is increasingly mission-critical in many sectors – meaning that leadership teams need to understand and embrace analytics and can no longer leave it to specialists to "do data" for them.
2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?
For many of the businesses I talk to in the retail and hospitality sectors, 2020 was obviously a disaster from a trading point of view. It did, on the other hand, force many businesses to change their operating models quickly, shifting from stores to online, for example. What that has done is remind many leadership teams that change is not only possible, but also possible at speed and at scale. I’m optimistic that many will carry this learning into future years, with potential benefits for their data and analytics change programmes.
Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?
As analytic capability is increasingly seen as mission-critical, it will put pressure on the kind of retail and hospitality businesses I talk to in two ways. Firstly, they will need to figure out how their whole leadership team can "go on the journey" together – for many traditional businesses, the biggest barrier to using data well is rejection of change by middle and senior managers. Secondly, they will need to figure out how to organise themselves to make asking good questions of data central to what they do. It will no longer be acceptable just to ask a consulting firm to build a data model – the process will need to be much more in-house.
Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?
In our start-up, TheBookSeekers, my co-founder is using analytics techniques like natural language processing to transform search and discovery in children’s books to encourage and democratise the love of reading. That’s a powerful social good, generated by applying technology in an area which has been surprisingly slow to change.
What has been your path to power?
I wouldn’t characterise myself as a data scientist at all, but I had the good fortune to spend the early part of my career in subscription businesses, like Sky and Vodafone, building and leading teams dedicated to turning analytics into commercial success. Coming later into the retail and hospitality sectors, I saw how businesses there often struggled both to generate good data and to make use of it.
I have an unusual combination of experiences, therefore, having seen analytics and data science in action but also having been a CEO and CMO and seen how boards have struggled to reinvent their businesses to take advantage of it. It is that combination that led me to the projects I work on now and to writing "The average is always wrong", which is first and foremost a guide to the power of data, written for the non-specialist business leader.
What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?
The turnaround of the Odeon Cinema Group, where we doubled the profitability of the business in just three years, was fundamentally driven by the application of good analytics and CRM practices across multiple European markets. As with any C-suite leader, I can only honestly claim to have been the cheerleader for that success – I was lucky enough to work with (and learn from) a fantastic set of country teams.
What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?
This is the central topic I explore in my book, "The average is always wrong". I’ve seen too many businesses think they have pulled the data lever because they’ve signed off some technology projects and hired some data scientists. But what many end up finding is that the core of their organisation doesn’t really embrace this change, and the investments in data don’t end up making much difference to commercial outcomes. That’s often because the wider team have been allowed to regard data as an interesting hobby – they will let the data scientists "do their thing", but want to carry on with core operations the way they have always been done.
That resistance to change is, at its core, driven by fear – many senior leaders know little about data science and reject the "black box" that seems to tell them what to do. Those businesses which succeed in becoming data centric do so by very visibly taking their leadership team on the journey together.