Why data skills are crucial to remain relevant in management
In a world driven by data, managers and leaders are increasingly aware of the need to develop their skills in this area.
Data skills and insights are vital to shape 21st century managerial strategies and corporate decision-making, and drive greater organisational efficiency.
An understanding of the value of data skills was accelerating before Covid-19, but has gained greater momentum since the pandemic - because data has been at the heart of the public reporting of the crisis.
“The pandemic acted as a push to managers to modernise and update their data skill-set, both personally and as a way of improving their organisation's productivity and efficiency,” says Dr James Abdey, Assistant Professorial Lecturer in Statistics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Dr Abdey leads the LSE Data Analysis for Management online certificate course in collaboration with GetSmarter, which has already helped professionals from a variety of organisations improve their data skills.
The 8-week, 8-module course passes on the knowledge and practical tools needed to understand, interpret and communicate data in a very practical way.
"We wanted to make the course relevant to the real world and useful in students’ day jobs, with a broad cross-section of techniques, including forecasting and data visualisation,” says Dr Abdey.
“Data visualisation can really bring data to life. In one chart, you can communicate a vast amount of information very efficiently. This helps quantify things simply and adds real value to an organisation.
“People say a picture paints a thousand words. Data visualisation speaks a thousand data points or more.”
Howard Barber, Deputy Chair of the Data Marketing Association in Scotland, agrees: “Data visualisation really has the ‘wow’ factor when you get it right and you have what you need at your fingertips.”
Dr Abdey points to Covid-19 articles or broadcasts illustrated by charts, showing the number of cases or fatalities, international comparisons or relative economic performance.
The course uses Tableau, a leading data visualisation software, which Dr Abdey says most participants won’t have used before, but can get to grips with quickly: "Within a few hours, even if they are not from a strong quantitative background, students are able to generate some data visualisations with ease.”
Another course topic is data forecasting: “The future is always uncertain but if you don’t forecast, you are working blind,” says Dr Abdey: “If you take a purely qualitative approach to decision-making, in whatever setting, you are primarily guided by gut instinct.
“If you can incorporate a data element - data that’s sound, valid, clean and represented fairly - it provides objective fact, to show evidence to support a particular view. The great power of data and statistics is the opportunity to understand why things are as they are.”
Howard Barber says the pandemic has underpinned the trend towards looking at the data you have and using it to inform evidence-based decision-making: “You need to be much closer to your market and customer base and react effectively and quickly to change. It’s about having data in a place here it allows your organisation to be as efficient, adaptable and customer-centric as possible.”
Dr Abdey says it is also important to have a critical eye and questioning mind: “I teach students to be sceptical and not have blind trust in data, to beware of it being presented in a subjective way.”
Participants on the course have an assignment each week, which involves examining large datasets (fictitious, but highly realistic) to draw insights - and a capstone project, to pull together research findings in a specific area of interest.
“Students go data mining to find interesting things, like helpful geographical trends and patterns,” Dr Abdey explains. “Is a particular geographical or business unit losing money? Can data help tell you why?
“It doesn’t provide all the answers but points you in the right direction. It’s like detective work. It’s about identifying where to focus your energies.
“Raw data sets are noise and you need to find the signal. With luck, you discover them quickly, but sometimes it takes longer. We help people know where to look and recognise when they find something.”
This means embedding data skills throughout an organisation, especially at managerial level.
“We are seeing the role of Chief Data Officer emerging as something much more visible,” says Howard Barber of DMA Scotland. “But in many organisations, the stereotype of data skills being provided by a graduate or post-grad from university persists. We are not looking enough at how existing organisations can upskill. It’s a real learning curve.
“There are still big issues like moving data from the analyst team to the wider organisation and to external organisations where necessary.”Dr Abdey agrees: “It’s not just about bringing data scientists into the business - it’s about senior staff understanding how to make best use of data and to embed evidence-based decision-making across the organisation.”
This is at the very heart of what the course tries to achieve; to teach managers how to understand and interrogate data in a way which adds value to personal and organisational performance.
“Most businesses aren’t short of data, but it’s about converting raw data into information and insights which will allow real world actions to be taken,” says Dr Abdey.
“The course is about getting managers to a place where they feel confident and competent to perform data analysis independently and apply that in the real world.”
Find out more: LSE Data Analysis for Management online certificate course