helen mannion




Many conversations about data and analytics start by focusing on technology. Obviously having the right tools is crucial. But too often, decision makers overlook or underestimate the significance of the people and organisational components needed to build a successful data and analytics strategy.


When this happens data and analytics strategies can grind to a halt – not delivering the insights needed to drive the organisation forward or inspiring confidence in the actions required to do so. And the stakes are high. The International Data Corporation estimating that global business investments in data and analytics will surpass $200 billion by 2020.


A successful data and analytics strategy includes more than a tech stack, or a few people isolated on one floor of the building. To reach its potential, data and analytics needs to become the pulse of the organisation, incorporated into all key decisions from sales through to supply chain.  


Helen Mannion, Director at glassLeaves, specialises in helping companies make smarter, timely decisions. She previously led data strategies at both giffgaff and O2, helping to improve operational efficiency and enable more informed decision-making. Helen was also included in DataIQ Top 100 list of most influential people in data driven business.


We spoke to her for insight into the data driven evolution of modern business, staff training for data literacy, the importance of building trust, and adapting strategies in the face of new information.


Can you give us a general overview of how data has changed the business landscape over the last 5-10 years?


Significant changes in technology have led to an exponential increase in the data business can obtain, transform, and action in a timely manner. This evolution has also led to consumers expecting information at their fingertips in an instant.


Whether it is a solution delivering complex AI or a proposition delivering information in real-time there is no doubt that data is a fundamental part of many business product offerings today. The combination of new technology and the ability to process data effectively is creating innovation across industries.


In addition to data (and the insight from it) transforming product development it is also transforming companies internally, making it possible for business leaders to have facts to aid everyday business decisions, which historically would have been left solely to gut feel. 


Data is now viewed as a strategic asset and the fuel of the digital economy. Because of this, many organisations aspire to become data-driven companies. But what does it mean to be data driven, and what does it require?


For me being “data driven” is when individuals from all parts of your organisation are able to regularly access and utilise accurate, relevant data to help them make smarter decisions.


If everyone was utilising data to the best of their abilities, more data would become embedded into your proposition. Data would not only be utilised to answer the “bigger questions” delivering substantial value but would simultaneously deliver gains at a much greater scale across the whole organisation.


For a time, leaders may want to ask the same questions each day, but more often than not, their questions change as their situation evolves. It is simply impossible for BI teams to keep up with these ever changing demands.


To be truly data driven you need to embed analytical thinking throughout your organisation, training your staff to be data literate in order to accurately answer their own questions from a simplified source of information. This will free up your data experts to work on helping the business to answer the more complex questions which will deliver the greatest benefits.

What potential pitfalls/challenges should businesses keep in mind when developing their data strategies?


The best data strategies are situated at the heart of an organisation and fully aligned with the overarching business goals. It would include a mixture of aspirational, longer term objectives alongside quick wins to ensure everyone can feel the benefits from the start and throughout the programme.


You can never talk about a strategy too much, you will realise your goals quicker if everyone understands it and works to help you get there. If you don’t keep reminding people, they forget. I would!


Never be afraid of your strategy evolving. Over the course of the programme you will realise that a new approach may work better. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your strategy can’t evolve and don’t beat yourself up for getting it wrong first time around.


With more information we make better decisions and as you go through a programme and see first hand how it is developing, things change. I would be more worried if everything stayed the same.


What are the necessary requirements for building high-performing data teams?


Building a high performing data team is really no different (other than the skills of the people in your team) than building another high-performing team within the organisation. You need a shared purpose and vision that everyone can buy into, feel energised about and have a desire to achieve.


You need to ensure every member of the team understands the part they are playing, what they are responsible for, how they are going to achieve it and when it needs to happen. And you need trust, even when things are not going well. In-fact when things are going wrong, trust is even more critical. Your people are going to be the ones to get you out of the sticky situation you have found yourself in.


Don’t be tempted to cast blame and judgement, but objectively pinpoint what needs to be done to move forward and improve. No-one should be afraid to say “I’ve got it wrong”, “I’ve made a mistake”, or “I don’t understand”. We all make mistakes (everyday in my case) and sit in meetings not fully understanding the terminology people use.


What matters is that we can admit to ourselves and others how we really feel – this then allows us to fix issues quickly, and ensures everyone learns faster from the experience. As leaders, we can help to develop these behaviours across the team through the way we ourselves behave. If you want to improve the performance of your team – look at the way you are leading!



Looking ahead, do you see any emerging trends or technologies that will shape the future of data & analytics in business?


There have been many buzzwords over the last few years around data and the benefits it can bring and I think this will continue for many years to come. In my mind, we are still at the start of the data evolution.


Even the most sceptical companies, can no longer deny, that many of the most successful businesses today are data-driven. This year, the GDPR has forced companies to really understand where data is held and for what it is being used. This has led to better data governance, which is great for end consumers as well as the companies themselves.


Whilst too much governance & red tape can hold a company back, when implemented effectively this type of governance will help companies achieve data democratisation and a single version of the truth.


I believe, this trend will continue, no longer driven through regulation but through a desire by companies to be able to explain to everyone simply how they should utilise information to improve company performance.


In addition to data governance, I believe companies will start to provide more widespread training on data & analytics to all of their staff, in efforts to create a truly data-driven business. The more people can utilise information effectively, the more benefits organisations will be able to generate.


As data continues to become an even more critical element of a company’s success, there is no doubt, that in time, having a knowledgeable data advocate on the board will become an essential element rather than a nice to have.



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