The Data Craft: Developing Skills for the Digital Age

In September 2020 the UK Government published its first ever draft National Data Strategy.  Its primary aim is to ensure that the UK is able to ‘harness the power of data to boost productivity, create new businesses and jobs, improve public services and position the UK as the forerunner of the next wave of innovation’.  [1]

Since its publication, the UK government has sought feedback on its strategy from a wide array of data management professionals and other interested stakeholders, including universities and other education providers.   As part of this I was invited to attend the first meeting of a National Data Strategy Forum in June 2021.  Along with other selected UK based data specialists, I was given direct access in the virtual meeting to the UK government minister leading the strategy as well as its primary authors. 

As you might expect, this initial discussion was very wide ranging, but a lot of emphasis was put on the so called ‘Four Pillars’ for success outlined in the strategy, namely data Foundations, Skills, Availability & Responsibility.  There was broad consensus that these were the right building blocks, but many people felt that Skills was the main area where a step change was required.   Although there has been a 50% increase in people working in data in the UK since 2013 (from 1.1 million to 1.7 million people) the UK today still has over 100,000 unfilled data vacancies, and the indications are that this skills gap is increasing day by day as more organisations seek to transform themselves by becoming more digital and data driven.   I am sure these trends are reflected in similar skills shortfalls experienced in many other countries across the globe.

In the forum discussion some contended that the core to data skills enhancement was to start in schools and universities by making data literacy and data skills core to any programme of education.  Others, including myself, argued that filling this gap, and upskilling existing data people to ensure their skills are current and relevant, requires more than changing curricula in schools and universities.  Developing more data literate future generations is necessary, but not sufficient, as it will take a long time to rewrite curricula and train the teachers who have to deliver it.  Moreover, in my experience, much of the data management education already in place puts too much emphasis on technical data skills.  Although as we all know these are essential and vital, data education all too often ignores the critical soft skills that make the difference between succeeding and failing in data management.    This is true in many data disciplines and no more so than in data governance where 80% of the challenge is getting people to buy into its concepts and practices rather than the technologies that support it.   Many educators have never worked in the business world and are not best placed to understand and teach the soft skills needed.

So how can the widening skills gap be addressed more quickly and effectively?  The onus should fall heavily on those of us who are experienced data management specialists.  Our chosen profession is still relatively immature and exhibits many of the characteristics of a craft.  When apprentices joined the teams of masons and carpenters who built the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, they acquired their skills by learning from the master craftsmen who had many years of experience, often gained through trial and error.  Data management has many similar characteristics; like cathedral building it’s part science, part art. 

How can we pass this experience on?  There are several ways but I’ll highlight two which I believe are the most effective.  In a recent blog for the Data Management Association of the UK (DAMA UK) [2] I extolled the benefits of data management mentoring, where independent data specialists (mentors) guide less experienced mentees to help them develop their professional and personal skills.   If you don’t already do this try to find the time to mentor someone in your organisation (or even as in the DAMA UK scheme in another company) who would benefit from your experience and time. 

The second way is for data professionals to create and deliver training courses and seminars which can be widely accessed by others to help them learn the tricks of the trade that more experienced practitioners have acquired through years of activity.  Unlike academic teaching the benefit of these industry based courses delivered by active practitioners is that the trainer can introduce his or her own personal experience, including the war stories, into the training.  Doing so ensures that attendees can be warned against some of the common pitfalls that can derail any data management initiative and to highlight what works best in real life, rather than the more theoretical approaches often found in academia.   If you don’t have the time to prepare and deliver these courses yourself, consider sending your data apprentices on training run by other organisations such as Global Data Strategy offers.  If you do, your data people have a much better chance of developing the craft skills that can build the data cathedrals of the future.   What they produce may not last as long as the cathedrals of Europe, but they’ll have a much better chance of not falling down.     

[1] National Data Strategy, page 3.  See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-data-strategy/national-data-strategy

[2] DAMA UK website.  See https://www.dama-uk.org/Blog/10568902