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Specialist insights: Harnessing the power of digital data


In the latest in our series of Specialist Insights, we hear from Steve Caughey, who offers some government specialist insights into the value of digital data for SMEs, how to effectively store and sort it - especially with the challenges posed by COVID-19 - and how they can use these data points to their advantage.


If your Centre would like more information on this for your members, please contact us.


“How can businesses begin to extract value from their data?”



Director of the National Innovation Centre for Data; Steve Caughey

Executives understand that data is strategically important to their business. They know that their data contains information that would give them a better understanding of their operations, enabling improvements in efficiency and giving them a better understanding of their customers, enabling new marketing and sales opportunities. Yet many executives are at a loss to know how to proceed in extracting all that value. At the National Innovation Centre for Data, we are funded by the government to help organisations address this issue.

Data is flooding into every organisation.

It’s coming from sensors embedded in production lines, vehicles, buildings and hand held devices, from software systems and from social media. It’s being stored effectively, albeit in many different, frequently incompatible, databases. However, data by itself has no value - it’s just a vast mountain of zeroes and ones. The value comes when the data is analysed and information extracted. The analogy we often use is that currently everyone is building libraries but no-one is reading the books.

The problem that businesses need to address, is how they can obtain the skills they need to extract information from data.

Given the vast quantities of data now being collected it’s no longer feasible to just throw the data into Crystal reports or Excel and visually assess the meaning. Instead businesses need to be able to sample the data effectively and/or crunch through vast quantities. The skills required, a combination of maths and stats coupled with scalable computing, are in very short supply indeed, and those with that combination of skills – data engineers and data scientists, are amongst the highest paid professionals. Unfortunately for businesses due to the exponential growth in data collection and the time lag for higher educational to produce the necessary numbers of skilled people, this situation is only likely to get worse over the coming years.

The executive the lack of data skills in their organisation exacerbates the problem.

How can they set their business’ data strategy without the skilled people to advise them? And how can they even hire the right people when this is a new profession which no-one in the organisation really understands. The temptation is to outsource. Yet in the main to rely on outsourcing would be a mistake. Data is core to the business. No-one else can understand the business’ data and the relevance of any information extracted better than the business’ own staff. Outsourcing might provide temporary relief but it will be expensive, lock you into the outsourcing provider, and will not solve the problem in the long-term. Instead, it will be necessary to grasp the nettle.


Businesses need to bring the necessary skills in-house.

The first of two pieces of good news is that not every business requires a team of fully-fledged PhD level Data Scientists. What businesses need are incremental improvements on how they are handling data and corresponding incremental improvements in data skills. The other piece of good news is that employees are eager to obtain data skills as they unlock hidden value and, given the shortages, support career progression. Businesses should look to opportunities to build in-house skills by bringing in new employees who, even if not fully trained, have an interest in this subject, by exploring training including part-time and the use of the apprenticeship levy, and by supporting the sharing of expertise amongst staff. I’ll go into more details in a further blog post in the near future.


In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss the issues raised here please contact the National Innovation Centre for Data - https://www.ncl.ac.uk/nicd/contact/


About Steve Caughey

With a background in software engineering and system architecture, Steve is the Director of the new National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD), which will bring together industry, the public sector and world-leading academics to develop the skills, ideas and resources needed to exploit the opportunities offered by the explosion in digital data.