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Rob Kent, Chief data officer, Pets at Home

Path to power

 

I started out as an accidental computer scientist over 35 years ago, which subsequently found me in business-facing IT roles for the majority of my 25-year career. I spent ten fruitful years at Royal Mail, seven as its inaugural chief data officer leading the company’s group business intelligence function, created from a blank sheet of paper and growing to a substantial 120-plus group of exciting data and analytical professionals. More recently, I have joined the executive team at Pets at Home to set out the bold strategy of harnessing the power of data and analytics that will continue to grow the UK’s premier pet care business.

 

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

 

The experience of creating a talented, multi-disciplined team, all focused on driving value from data, and then grabbing the opportunity to do it all again and represent data and analytics on the top table of a great company like Pets at Home.

 

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

 

Always deliver to the outcome. Don’t build a data warehouse for data warehouse’s sake. Don’t follow the theory like a religion. In essence, it’s ok to fail, but get on quickly and try again learning from the mistakes.

 

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

 

Well, I got a new job, so it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I’m excited by the prospect of working with a CEO and board who have the ambition to recognise the value of what analytics with a rich data set could do for their business.

 

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

 

To a large degree, I expect that we will see more of the same as we did in 2018. For example, businesses will continue to get to grips with AI and good talent will be in short supply. I think the tech giants will become even more prominent in our space and we should embrace this, as they have the potential to offer low cost to entry and create an environment to test and learn until you either succeed or kill the initiative. I hope the use of analytics throughout an organisation becomes more conversational and helps tell the story using natural language, while remaining data-driven. Demystifying the complexities of advanced analytics - to the point that they simply tell the consumer of that analysis what action to take - would be a huge step forward.

 

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

 

First and foremost, an organisation needs to have a vision and strategy that potential talent can buy into, both in terms of the business model and also how analytics can help achieve that vision. I spend a lot of time selling the vision and the art of the possible. Potential talent needs to be sold on how they can come in and help achieve this. They need to see how they will be instrumental to that success. Secondly, we actively create an environment that enables our team to thrive. Having the right tools for the job, collaborative work spaces and working patterns that suit the individual - ones that are based on outcome and not task - are crucial. Finally, individuals need to have the freedom to research, fail, discover and eventually succeed. Being prescriptive about how people should work and setting unrealistic targets within the analytical disciplines is simply counter-productive.

 

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

 

If I’m permitted to be parochial for a moment, I’m extremely optimistic about how data and analytics can improve pet welfare, offer a brilliant service to our pet owners, and help our colleagues and specialist vets with a new level of insight that optimises their decision-making.
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