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M&S Placing digital at the heart of business

Placing digital at the heart of business

News that Marks & Spencer is launching the first Data Academy for retail and is upskilling 1,000 M&S colleagues as part of its data skills initiative, has to be lauded as one of the best examples of leadership to date when it comes to digital transformation.

Partnering with learning organisation, Decoded, which seeks to help companies put data at the heart of their businesses, the academy will bolster M&S’ ongoing transformation and help it fulfil its ambition of becoming a ‘digital first’ retailer.

The data academy will take colleagues from every function of the chain, from store managers and visual merchandisers to finance and buying, with the aim of creating a new raft of data-skilled leaders to lead digital transformation across the organisation. A data leadership programme will enable them to get hands-on with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning which M&S reckons will help them to become “the most data-literate leadership team in retail”.

M&S colleagues have an opportunity to enrol on the Data Fellowship programme, an 18-month in-work data science skills programme which is funded by the Government’s Apprenticeship Levy. Learners will come away from the programme with a data analytics qualification accredited by the British Computing Society and be equipped to harness the power of cutting-edge tools such as ‘R’ and ‘Python’.

Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, points to the move as the retailer’s biggest digital investment in its people to date, and he echoes the themes Rialto regularly refers to when it comes to digital transformation, especially regarding culture change. “Transformation of our business is key to survival and a huge part of this lies with our colleagues,” he explains. “We need to change their digital behaviours, mindsets and our culture to make the business fit for the digital age and our partnership with Decoded will enable us to do this.”

Agile Consultation

M&S is leading the way and it will be interesting to see how quickly other major retailers follow. Research released this week by consulting and technology firm, Infosys, reveals that less than a quarter of organisations surveyed understand that the commitment to digital is at the heart of true transformation and it is the organisations that do which are reaping the rewards of digital disruption. The New Champions of Digital Disruption: Incumbent Organisations report also found that lack of digital skills is currently the greatest barrier to digital transformation.

Infosys’ research identifies three clusters of respondents based on the business objectives behind their digital transformation initiatives: ‘visionaries’ (22 per cent) which understand the potential of the digital revolution to completely transform their business; ‘explorers’ (50 per cent) which commit to digital programmes driven by the need to enhance customer experience; and ‘watchers’ (28 per cent) which see digital transformation through the “prism of efficiency”.

While watchers and explorers are primarily focusing on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and 3D printing for digital transformation initiatives, visionaries are not only looking at emerging technologies, but are also focusing strongly on core areas such as mainframe and enterprise resource planning (ERP) modernisation, the champions report states.

“Visionaries believe that true transformation comes from the core and without this in the background, digital technologies will not perform to their potential. The study reflects that their commitment to modernising from the core will yield benefits, such as improved productivity and efficiencies,” said Infosys.

Based on this, one would have to place the retailer firmly in the visionary cluster since it is going straight to the core with its digital skills initiative. For some time now, the UK has needed a non-technology company to champion digital and point the way for others and in M&S it finally has one.

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