The reason that data science has become a hot new skill set is due to data scientists being polymaths: they have a broad set of experience, spanning a number of different areas, from analytics through to engineering. They’ve got what it takes to tackle a problem, wrestle the data and prove the business impact. Their combined knowledge of different disciplines make them a force to be reckoned with. Not unlike Renaissance greats such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo, data scientists are using their hybrid combination of skills to pioneer new frontiers.
Typically a data polymath has three key disciplines. The first is commercial expertise, which empowers them to see opportunity within the data. The second is statistical expertise to create models from the data and the third is development, an aptitude to build and implement algorithms. But it is their ability to work across all of these dimensions, seamlessly combining technical and commercial skills, which puts data scientists in a class of their own. These skills have become increasingly important as marketing has undergone something of a resurgence.
Underpinned by the rising prominence of data, marketing has become a strategic hub for engagement and influence. The power of data to tell stories and create a user experience that resonates with the consumer is now a powerful tool. Just look at Amazon. How many times have you been hooked in to different purchasing paths and lost hours of your life exploring related areas of interest that you previously weren’t aware of? Just the other day a friend mentioned that they’d been searching for some Frozen party accessories for their child’s upcoming birthday and emerged an hour later having purchased cups, balloons, tablecloths, Frozen-themed games, the lot.
That’s the power of data. It creates commercial opportunities, but only if you can combine a mastery of the data with an in-depth understanding of the business, the market within which it operates and what the consumer wants. Data insights have become a premium, empowering companies to see a gap in the market and ensuring they’re able to capitalise on it more effectively than others. The world is becoming increasingly data-driven and polymaths understand this new world – and its currency - better than any other.
Does this mean that they are on track to rule the world? The CEOs in waiting? Whatever the chances are, it is important to remember that leadership is more, so much more, than an affinity for data. The ability to steer a company through good times and bad is not for everyone. Our brains operate on a left and right basis. The left side is our rational side and the right side taps into our emotions. To my mind great leadership comes from an ability to engage and motivate the emotional side of our brains. That is a unique skill set. Whilst polymaths inherently recognise that your future never looks like your past and as such businesses must always seek to strive forward, that doesn’t mean they are automatically set to rise to the top. Of course, many will, but saying a polymath is a leader by default is misleading.
However, having someone at board level that understands the value and velocity of data is unquestionably key for commercial survival. If you ever needed an example of how data leaders can morph into data luddites look no further than Tesco. Heralded as breaking new ground with the launch of its ‘Tesco Club’ card, its failure to keep pace with the speed of change has seen it fall out of touch with what consumers want and how they shop. Where once it dominated the so called ‘top four’ now it is struggling to remain relevant to consumers who shop little and often rather than in bulk.
So where will this much needed data leadership come from? As it stands, it is most likely to infiltrate the company in an advisory capacity via recognised leaders such as Hilary Mason, a prominent data scientist in the industry, founder of Fast Forward Labs and previously chief scientist at Bitly. The reason being that up until now data science has been locked into West Coast companies. This has to change. Companies from all geographic walks of life have to figure out how to join the data revolution and identify individuals within the organisation that have the polymath attributes to take their business to the next level.
by Tim Barker, Chief Product Officer, DataSift