Pete Williams began his career in retail before pursuing a degree in computer science which lead to a position in Computer Services at John Lewis Partnership. Pete made rapid progress through roles as a Computer Operator, Programmer, Systems Analyst and Project Manager. Pete moved across to the commercial side of the business and eventually into change management which has afforded him a wide overview of the ways that data and analytics can impact an organisation and lead transformational change.
As part of our technology and retail leadership series, Pete took the time to speak with us about his career to date, his philosophy on the impact technology can have and a range of issues affecting the sector.
What does a typical day at work look like?
My informal title is Data Evangelist, and I do feel that passionate about the transformational impact of data on better decision-making. So a significant part of my day is spent as an internal consultant on the data-driven decisions being made in every part of the business. That could be on the available or required data, the best tools, identifying talent to work on an issue, or even working on team structures to drive success.
My other significant function is to lead the analyst community I have created. Here I bring together anyone interested in using data to inform better decisions across the business. Joined through an online collaboration tool and supplemented with internal conferences, ‘lunch and learn’ sessions and DataDives it’s a thriving network of self-support and inspiration. I also have a lot of interaction with outside agencies and conference organisers where I speak often on my passion for data.
In what area of your business have advancements in technology had the most impact?
Bizarrely I think one departmental function that has seen a major impact has been the IT department. As sophisticated technology lands into the hands of normal folk at home and at work, their capabilities and expectations outpace the capacity and agility of corporate IT. This enlightened business community is the field which Tableau has harvested so effectively over recent years.
Another area is the focus on customer engagement and experience. Driven by the disruption delivered through mobile capability, customer expectations of a seamless experience through any channel when engaging with a company has given us the omnichannel requirement. Delivering this requires a closer collaboration across many areas of an organisation than was necessary before.
As a result, I’d actually say that all business areas have suffered to some degree from an inability to move at the speed which a data-driven customer demands.
Speaking of mobile, how has the digital revolution and growth of the mobile/tablet market affected the role of analytics within retail?
In simple terms, it has created vast new datasets and set a new level of possibilities over what that data can inform. For senior teams, it creates strategic and commercial opportunities to pursue. The granular level of traceability over customer movements has provided a level of insight into the shopping experience not previously possible. Traditional channels simply did not offer this level of accessible and measurable detail. Smart retailers are now applying the lessons learned back to physical retail – take a look at how Amazon brings their website bestsellers or recommendations into their physical book stores. It’s like taking a stroll through their website and feels instantly familiar.
Few retailers are properly exploiting the potential of location-based analytics and the service offers they can drive. This is an immature market of enormous potential for personalisation and engagement.
Analytics is fundamental to online retail but omnichannel makes it more important to physical and more traditional retail as well. Web analytics is now so prevalent that it has become commoditised but measurable data gives the concepts of multivariate and A/B testing greater potential to play back into the physical world.
Sometimes data analytics and BI are seen as a cost to the business, rather than a benefit. What is the perception of data within retail and how much support is channelled down via senior stakeholders?
My view is that great companies, including retailers and their supply base, know that data and analytics are a vital competitive advantage and can generate commercial success. Those that don’t are those who suffer first when disruption enters their market. They are prone to make emotional, rather than evidence-based decisions. They are often outpaced by their competition and lose touch with their customers’ expectations.
If you view data, analytics and BI as a cost rather than a competitive advantage then frankly you don’t have a future, except perhaps a place on the list that features the likes of Kodak, Blockbusters, Woolworths and now Toys ‘R’ Us.
However, it’s not enough to know that data and analytics are important. The vision, energy and commitment to transform a business to thrive on data-driven decisions is what’s required. We are not yet at a stage where all senior stakeholders are data literate and therefore capable of demanding the same of their organisations. In this scenario it is unlikely that data and analytics will see widespread adoption into key business processes in legacy businesses.
Among those competitors that do pay data and analytics heed, how do you stay ahead of the game?
Never, ever lose touch with your customer. This is job number one. Never assume you are speaking with their voice, seek their genuine voice out and use the data tools to do so. Be aware that data allows you to see what customers really do, not what they say they do.
Pay attention to your competitors and understand what they are doing. Data allows you to access, model and plan how your business could be disrupted and evaluate what you will do in each scenario.
Pay attention to younger generations.
a. For customers, this means to understand their worldview and align your business strategy to fit with their growth to be in a place to meet their needs when appropriate to do so. This is your future customer base, don’t underestimate them.
b. For competitors, understand potential disruptors who are often more data literate than you. Don’t be blind to or dismissive of new ways of doing what you currently do well.
How do you, as a senior data professional, continue to meet the changing demands of the business?
By being relevant and involved in strategic conversations so you know where it’s going. As fact-based decision-making continues to prove its worth, you’ll be involved and helping to set and drive strategy for the wider business. Bringing your expertise and resources to support that strategy, and keeping up to date with industry advances that genuinely add value will ensure you’re a valued partner. You’d also be wise to keep a log of the business value generated by your data-driven activity so your presence can’t be questioned.
What is your advice for successfully implementing new systems/processes?
You need to generate pull rather than push. Prove the value of what you are doing and become a trusted part of the process. Start small but be ready to scale quickly.
Be outcome focused. Understand the end user and what they need, how they will be seen as heroes by your project. Get to know their fears and concerns and how they might benefit from opportunities. Help them feel in control and express your transformation in their language.
- Find senior sponsorship. Ultimately, you’ll need to be sufficiently resourced to tackle the challenges you’ll face. If you are hitting the mark on points one and two this will be far easier.
How has the skill set of Head of Data Analytics changed over recent years?
It has definitely become a more important and higher profile role within an organisation. Therefore the Head is becoming more of an influencer, more strategic and needs to be a confident communicator. Deep technical and mathematical skills are therefore no longer enough in a role such as this.
It is my belief that all decisions can and will be made based on data, it’s why I prefer the term ‘decision science’ to ‘data science’. If you are in control of shaping that data then you’re informing the decisions and you occupy the most influential role there is. Data analysts are therefore corporate superheroes!
What do you think the long-term future holds for the industry?
Automation, across the board. Robotics will play an increasing part in business operations such as logistics (autonomous deliveries, automated shelf-filling) and AI in informing or making an increased number of crucial decisions through complex Machine Learning algorithms.
An even closer alignment between physical and online retail. Omnichannel as an expectation is here to stay but at a deeper level of personalisation for the individual shopper.
- A potential enormous disruption in retail if consumers learn the real value of their data in bulk and choose to withhold it, or even find the opportunity to give it a sellable value. GDPR could be more disruptive here than anticipated with the fines that most organisations are concerned about.
What advice would you give to people building their career in data and analytics?
I’d advise that jobs are rarely what is written in the job description. Shape the role to get what you want to get from it, be persistent and courageous. Don’t miss an opportunity to learn from challenges and risks, what scares you is what shapes you. Over the coming years people skills and relationship building will remain vital, so learn how to communicate and influence.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to raise the profile of analysts in businesses where they were primarily Excel jockeys, printing and handing out low-quality tables of numbers. With the right training, great modern tools, access to data and substantial challenges I saw them blossom into highly influential contributors to business strategy and performance. Data superheroes. Who wouldn’t want to be one?
Pete Williams was speaking to Alan Joesbury, Consultant at Michael Page Technology. For a confidential discussion about recruitment or career opportunities in the technology sector don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can also see out latest technology industry insights here.
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