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Helen Mannion, Global chief data officer, Specsavers

Helen Mannion

Path to power

 

I fell into my first career, as a SAS analyst, without much thought, but since then have never looked back. Five years ago, I threw myself into a role as head of business intelligence and data protection officer at giffgaff. Within four years I transformed a small, immature data team into a data centre of excellence, accountable for everything from reporting and analytics, data science, data warehouse development, market research and GDPR. Since then I have helped other companies transform their data and analytics capabilities, most recently working with Specsavers to embed a data-driven culture across its global enterprise. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from enabling businesses to make smarter decisions, helping my teams to achieve their aspirations and seeing the impact great analysis provides. In addition to helping corporate organisations realise their data potential, I also work as a NED for an educational trust which provides the opportunity to make a difference to children’s lives and encourage the development of technology and AI in schools.

 

What has been the highlight of your career in the industry to date?

 

My highlight has to be all the talented, supportive and generous people with whom I have had the pleasure to work and collaborate. It continues to amaze me how willing people are to help and how generous people are with their time. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am today without the huge amount of support I have received from so many people. It strikes me that the more we all share the faster the data industry will go from strength-to-strength.

 

If you could give your younger self some advice about how to progress in this industry, what would it be?

 

Be yourself and seek to understand yourself. It is only when you fully understand your drivers and values and are able to be a confident, authentic version of yourself that you are best placed to look after others.

 

Did 2018 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

 

Life is always full of surprises! Looking back, I expected 2018 to be full of GDPR change programmes, and companies adding more AI and advanced analytics into their products and services. There is no doubt that GDPR made a huge impact in 2018 and this will continue for many years to come. The publicity and focus at board level on GDPR has also created an additional benefit for data, helping prioritise data initiatives outside of GDPR workstreams and increase the pace of transformation programmes. While GDPR has provided additional board focus around data, there are still relatively few companies exploiting the benefit of AI within their organisation. Progress on this appears slower than I would have expected but, undoubtedly, we are moving in the right direction.

 

What do you expect 2019 to be like for the industry?

 

With our high streets continuing to struggle and the digital world taking over, data becomes an invaluable asset to help organisations make very difficult business decisions and embed slick customer experiences within digital transformations. Consumers’ expectations are also evolving as technology improves and, if traditional businesses are going to survive, they need to invest and embrace change. This evolution will ultimately mean we are only left with data-driven companies and, while this is not going to happen overnight, companies who are not embedding digital and data into all aspects of their business need to act quickly.

 

Talent and skills are always a challenge to find - how are you tackling this in your organisation?

 

In this industry, finding people with all the skills you need is extremely difficult. For me, can-do attitude, positivity and grit is as important, if not more, than technical experience. If the people you employ have these attributes in abundance, they will be able to learn anything. Employ individuals with great attitude and be prepared to invest time and money in training. You will gain a positive, dedicated, motivated employee as they build new skills and experiences. Any relationship has to be a win-win. Ensure the connection is beneficial for your company and beneficial for the individual both at the beginning and throughout their employment. This will ensure you also retain great staff.

 

What aspect of data, analytics or their use are you most optimistic about and why?

 

Data is already impacting all of our lives, but for me the most exciting use is when data can be used to save people’s lives, help diagnose illnesses, slow epidemics or alert individuals with chronic illnesses before severe symptoms arise. It is unbelievable how data is already changing peoples’ lives and this is only going to increase.

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