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Marks & Spencer upskills internal talent with data science education

Retailer is building up a data science capability that includes a Master’s degree-level apprenticeship as well as making data literacy a common currency up and down the organisation

Marks & Spencer is building up a data science and management capability that includes Master’s degree apprenticeships, as well as making data literacy more of a common currency at the retailer.

Its most recent initiative was the launch of a “level 7” data science and artificial intelligence (AI) apprenticeship for 10 staff drawn from the M&S business. Level 7 is the term its data science education supplier, Cambridge Spark, uses and is derived from a UK government classification. But it is, essentially, a Master’s degree level education, said Suze Howse, head of enterprise data at the retailer.

Howse described herself as an “M&S lifer”, having started on the check-out till and worked in foods central planning before joining the data and digital function a couple of years ago, heading the data team for the past year. Howse has been at the company for 14 years, and became head of data strategy in 2019.

“My role is helping and partnering with the wider business,” she told Computer Weekly. “Promoting an understanding of what is data and why it’s important, how to get hold of it, and then how to drive value and decision-making from it.”

Howse’s team consists of data engineers, technical delivery leads and data architects. “They are leading the migration onto our cloud platform, which is a big part of our transformation, partnering with Microsoft,” she said. “And we have a product and data science side. Their role is to identify problems in the business and use data science to solve them, and deliver value at the same time.

“A great example recently is we’ve built a model that selects the optimum price for sale in our clothing and home [area]. It automates the process, which removes a lot of manual time from our merchandisers. But it also optimises to balance between the customer experience and profit for M&S.”

M&S has trained 280 staff and 500 of its senior leaders in data literacy, starting in 2018, with a level 4 data analyst apprenticeship and a level 3 data technician course.

“We are pushing boundaries quite a lot in what we’re doing in digital and data”

Suze Howse, Marks & Spencer

In a blog post published on the M&S corporate website, Howse wrote: “Our cohort of 10 colleagues, many of whom are graduates of our level 4 data analyst programme, have begun their journey to level 7 and becoming leading professionals in their field. Over 15 months, they’ll learn a series of cutting-edge data science techniques, in areas such as modelling, machine learning and automating and optimising business processes. 

“To put this in perspective, most businesses would feel privileged to have one level 7 graduate in their workforce; we will have 10 – which underlines just how serious we are about data here at M&S.

“As well as the commercial benefits, the new programme will bring a number of benefits to our talent pipeline. Firstly, it will help us attract and retain talent – as the level 7 programme isn’t available at any other retailers. Secondly, it will help us nurture our existing talent – encouraging more and more of our 70,000 colleagues to consider a career in data.”

Howse told Computer Weekly: “This is the first data science and AI apprenticeship programme aimed at colleagues who have a certain level of understanding in the data space. What this means is that we’ve got 10 colleagues in the business who aren’t data scientists today. These are people out in business, in clothing and home, and in retail and property, some in digital and data, and who are champions of data in their space, and now have the opportunity to advance their technical knowledge and therefore continue to be ambassadors for data, but also for more advanced data science techniques.”

Howse also told Computer Weekly about a reverse mentoring scheme for M&S’s senior leaders. “The interest and excitement from our leadership team across the business has been exceptional,” she said. “As an example, chief operating officer Katie Bickerstaffe is one of the people who are involved in the mentoring. What we do is we partner our leaders with our practitioners from across the business, based on what they would like to know more about. They may want to know more about data science, they may want to know more about how to use analytical tools. And then we pick the right practitioner and partner them together, and they meet monthly.”

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Marks & Spencer holds internal events focused on data and digital technology – “DigiFest” and a biannual hackathon.

“DigiFest is my favourite thing”, said Howse. “We launched it in 2019 and it’s a yearly event that we run at business level. It is a conference that is all around digital. And we ask every colleague in M&S to attend. In stores, we give them a bite-sized version, because we appreciate that they’re facing and talking to customers.

“It’s all around the question of how we are performing against our digital strategy. What are the amazing things that we’ve delivered through our partnership with Ocado, or our mobile app or Sparks [card]? We bring in guest speakers. And it’s an opportunity for us to talk directly to all of our colleagues and get them to feel really part of the journey. Our role is not to drive and deliver the digital strategy; our role is to partner with the business and make it real for them.”

In 2021, DigiFest saw 2,500 M&S staff in attendance – 300 in person.

The retailer also has a cloud data platform called Beam, which encompasses its data education resources, and from that has developed a Beam Academy, launched a year ago. This, said Howse, followed on from the level 4 data analyst fellowship. An example of the training and education delivered through that was, she said, “a full quarter on Power BI, which is our self-serve data visualisation tool”. That went to stores and all colleagues so they felt confident interacting with Power BI and accessing the database, she added.

“I think the key thing for me is, having been at M&S for a long time, I know we’re known for a lot of things – quality food and quality products,” said Howse. “We are a very established British retailer, there’s a lot of a heritage there. But I think the one thing that people don’t often think about is that we are pushing boundaries quite a lot in what we’re doing in digital and data. And I think this level 7 apprenticeship is a really amazing example of that.

“I don’t think anyone would have expected that M&S would be the first retailer to launch a data science and AI apprenticeship programme. And yet here we are.”

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