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Commitment to data analytics needs to come from the board

If retailers want to effectively use data to make business decisions understanding of data analytics needs to come from the top-down.

Andrew Mann, customer data director at The Co-Operative Group, said successful organisations are the ones which know the power of data and focus on what is better for the customer.

"It's about fact-based decisions, rather than 'I think' decisions," he said, noting how the Co-Op's CEO, Richard Pennycook, is very data literate.

Mann was speaking alongside other retail executives at the Big Data & Analytics Retail conference in London this week, and when the audience of retailers were asked if their CEO was "data driven", only a third raised their hands.

Mann added: "Organisations which wish to be successful in the future are the ones who put the customer at the heart of their organisation and create customer solutions to meet [commercial] challenges."

He said this can only be done with information from data-driven analytics and technology.

"The challenge most organisations have is that they don’t really understand what data is and they are frightened of big data," added Mann "The reality is humans have been using data longer than written word."

Mann suggested that data is the next evolving infrastructure – following railway development in the 19th Century and the laying of the electricity grid in the 20th Century – which will provide a foundation and real value for society.

He named several examples of customer-facing industries making clever business decisions with data. For instance, British Gas' smart meters and Disney offering Magic Bands to track park visitor's movements and suggest rides based on queue times.

But Mann also said that not all organisations need to be good at using data.

"Lots of organisations have done a really good job, but not everyone needs to be good at it," he said, pointing to Transport for London, which knew it needed to provide data for customers, but failed at launching successful mobile applications.

Instead, TfL set up an open API which 7,000 people signed up for, the most famous being Citymapper, which provides free, real-time transport information using TfL's data.

"Sometimes it's about outsourcing those expertise to deliver what you need from a customer perspective," explained Mann.

Mann also noted that his new chief digital officer, Mike Bracken – who joined the Co-Op at the end of last year from government – is making a great start at the organisation and he has high hopes for the company's digital transformation thanks to Bracken's experience at making government services more user-friendly.

Also speaking at the conference was Matthew Doubleday, head of data science at Shop Direct, who admitted he is lucky his CEO, Alex Baldock, is very driven by data. But for other retailers who may not be as fortunate, he suggested to try and develop that influence by demonstrating how data can help customer-focused organisations.

Meanwhile, Enda Ridge, senior data scientist and algorithm lead at Sainsbury’s and author of Guerrilla Analytics, also said data science decisions need to come from the operating board. But Ridge also noted that one of the biggest challenges for data analysts is their relationship with the IT department. He said data science should not be "bundled up with" or "isolated from" the IT department, but there needs to be a harmonious balance where technology becomes an enabler, not a blocker for data analytics. 

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