Getting Started with Data: Q&A with Steve Caughey

Written on: 14 October 2020

Written by: Frances Hardcastle



Today, businesses are collecting all kinds of data: from sensors, sales, social media and software systems. But how can your organisation make the most of this data to drive innovation, optimise for efficiency, and inform your decision making?

“The problem is that businesses know there’s a huge amount of insight they can obtain from their data – about their customers and how their businesses are operating – but they can’t get their hands on it. They can’t dig into the data and discover the value that’s locked in there,” said Steve Caughey, Director of the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD). “For all businesses, data is potentially transformational – if they can actually utilise it.”

But how do you utilise your data? We caught up with Steve, who kindly shared his expertise and top tips to help businesses of all sizes get the most from their data.

Avoid outsourcing and consultancy

Lots of businesses want to invest in data analytics, and may be tempted by data consultancies and the idea of receiving a neat file of insights all packaged up and ready to go, however – according to Steve, these quick fix solutions are rarely worth exploring.

He said: “through our experience, businesses shouldn’t rely on buying skills in through consultancy. Because it turns out that data, and understanding your data, is core to your organisation. Outsourcing may solve a problem for the short term, but longer term you’re not going to get extra innovation by outsourcing access to your data.”

“Our argument,” he advises, “is to start with small projects. You start by exploring your existing data sets, using your existing tools and your existing people, and then, bit by bit, you grow your experience and your skills. And then you begin to understand who you need to hire for future projects.”

Start with the data (and people) you already have

“When we first talk to a business at NICD, they’ll come in and they’ll say: ‘we’ve heard about all this AI stuff and this machine learning stuff, and we want to do it.’ Generally, that’s not possible because a) they don’t have the skills yet, and b) because small businesses often don’t have enough data to use those sorts of tools and techniques.

“Most organisations are working with spreadsheets and Access Databases. That’s where you start. If somebody’s great with spreadsheets; if they can do pivot tables and scenarios using spreadsheets and create nice charts that show what they’ve discovered, they’re data analysts. That’s where you start.”

According to Steve, the best way to start exploring data and gleaning useful insight is by taking things incrementally – starting with those spreadsheets and databases. Focus on improving your skills and empowering people to use those tools more effectively, and then ask yourself what’s missing so you can take the next step.

Related blog: Develop Dexterity with Data - Professional Development for Data Analysts

Embed data citizens at all levels of your business

“Bringing data analytics capability into the organisation isn’t simply a matter of creating a team who then do the work,” explained Steve. “There’s no point in doing that if the other people in the organisation don’t understand what’s being done, don’t understand the rationale, or don’t understand the analytics being performed.”

Instead, NICD recommend that businesses try to embed a culture of “data citizens” within their teams, building confidence and understanding of data – at all levels of the business, and in all departments.

“The best examples I have seen of organisations using data effectively are organisations where they get the experts in to help analyse their data, but they also educate the entire organisation. They run internal courses, including people from the shop floor right the way up to the senior management team. The organisations that do this well get their people really excited about data, and they’ll engage with using data to innovate – producing new products and services.”

Grow your own data team

There is a significant skills gap in data right now, with a small pool of skilled data scientists commanding high salaries within a competitive global market.

“Getting data skills into the organisation is really difficult,” acknowledged Steve. “People who already have these skills, and have the experience, are being gobbled up by the finance houses and global vendors.

“To get the skills into the organisation, what you’ve got to do is grow them in-house. A data focused apprenticeship that takes people who are already working with data, but perhaps not as efficiently as they might, is a very effective way of getting new skills in and motivating your team to work with data.”

Our Level 4 Data Analyst apprenticeship is designed to do exactly this. We take people who are already working with data at a junior level, and equip them with the technical skills and confidence they need to thrive.

Later, when your team is more established, data apprenticeships can be used as a way to attract and recruit fresh talent. An entry-level pathway, such as our Level 3 Junior Data Analyst apprenticeship, can offer a great way to boost your short term data team capacity, whilst building up the technical skills you’ll need for the future.

Look for people with the mindset of a data analyst

To thrive as a data analyst, it’s all about having the right mindset. Skills can always be developed over time, but soft skills and a few core behaviours can really go a long way. So, when you’re ready to start growing your data team, what skills and behaviours should you look for?

“The people in the greatest demand are the people who have the mindset to dive into problems,” said Steve. “It requires a certain amount of rigour, and mathematics and statistics, but it’s also having an open mind – the ability to look at a problem from a different angle, combined with the ability to express and communicate data so that insights can be shared.”


Find out more

For more information about our data apprenticeships, view our course outlines for Level 4 Data Analyst and Level 3 Junior Data Analyst via our programme pages.

To find out more about the National Innovation Centre for Data, and see what Steve and the team are working on now, take a look at their website or follow them on Twitter.

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