Skills gaps come from senior managers who can’t embrace change

Humanities graduates who are highly numerate make the best data scientists, says dunnhumby co-founder Clive Humby, but the obsession with digital skills means brands are neglecting communication and business awareness.

No matter the industry, access to talent can pose formidable challenges. In marketing, there has always existed a tussle between those who advocate a strict scientific approach and those who lean toward a more social-scientific approach. In the modern age of ‘big data’ – where the enormous supply of information represents limitless potential value to a business – great marketing needs people who can do both.

Marketers need to understand data-driven processes on one hand, while simultaneously giving a lucid account of human behaviour on the other. Not an easy task, but get the balance right and you will be building a team capable of real innovation.

With the explosion of digital, there has been a significant drive to recruit people with core technological skills – coders and computer programmers being in high demand. However, an overwhelming focus on digital skills risks failing to address the simultaneous need for employees with solid business and communication skills.

Making the most of big data is not just about finding a pattern, but about communicating what that pattern is and its implications for the business. For example, a marketer might find eight different types of customer profiles within their business’s data, however if they can’t explain what those types are, it is next to impossible to benefit from that data; be it product innovation, relevant communications or improved business processes.

Instead of an influx of people with basic analytical skills, what the workforce desperately needs is those who are able to find the patterns and understand the business process. Someone who can crunch the numbers as well as analyse behaviour.

Simply put, we need to find people with a hybrid of marketing and mathematical skills: the best maths model won’t win, but add marketing to the equation and you’re well on your way to the top.

A key caveat is that an organisation’s customer data is more often a reflection of the business itself rather than merely the customer, and recognising the patterns caused by sales cycles, promotions and customer service process is essential if the business is not to fool itself.

The arrival of more and more open data sources, including social media data and government statistics, means that many organisations are waking up to the realisation that the data they have in-house is no longer enough. Taking advantage of open data will present an open net to those that understand how the new sources can add real value and colour to a business.

An example of this is in London’s Theatreland, where external factors such as access to public transport will have a real impact on customer numbers and ticket sales for venues.

With this in mind, organisations need those with the ability to think outside the box, who ask themselves: ‘what data exists outside my business that will help to improve our marketing strategy?’ Fundamentally, it’s about understanding the customer journey, having an awareness of the world outside of your business’s four walls and successfully making sense of the decision points that lead to purchase.

But perhaps one of the most significant challenges businesses face when finding talent is, in fact, the senior management team and the growing obsession with measurements.

The reality is that many organisations simply aren’t geared up to innovate and try new methods. Far too often, they are restricted by old business models and fail to embrace new, effective methods to understand customers that newer employees – who are naturally more open to change – might put forward. Rather than the onus being on the lack of skills coming through the organisation, the onus should be on the inability of senior management to accept that change needs to happen and to embrace it.

In the world of data-driven marketing, finding employees with numerical skills and who understand the business process needs to be an organisation’s number-one priority.

When we built dunnhumby, and more recently through our work with Starcount, we made a point of highlighting how important it was to source and enable talented individuals who could blend marketing and mathematical skills. This isn’t just about cherry-picking the lucky few who have that attractive combination; it’s about structuring an organisation in a way that lends it the flexibility to integrate teams when the need arises.

In my experience, those with geography or humanities training and who are highly numerate tend to make the best data scientists because they understand the process that leads to the outcome, rather than just the mathematics. If you can’t understand and explain the journey then the data is not being used to its full potential and your results will suffer because of it.

The world of marketing needs flexible thinkers well versed in complex equations as well as communication techniques. Without these new-age marketers, the incredible amount of data that exists at our fingertips will not be effectively deployed and will be wasted. Those organisations that fail to use data to its full potential cannot – and will not – succeed in today’s competitive workplace.

Far too often, business leaders look in the wrong place for new talent. There is an obsession with digital and mathematical skills, but not enough focus on business and communication skills. To that point, the real issue isn’t about managing the data – we have more data than we can shake a stick at. The key is working out how to make it relevant.

Clive Humby is chief data scientist at Starcount and was co-founder of dunnhumby.


Clive Humby: Star Wars bridges the gender gap like no other franchise

Clive Humby

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