How Marks & Spencer trains its employees in data science

Marks & Spencer intends to strengthen the capacities of its employees in data science. Its most recent initiative has been to deliver level 7 data science and artificial intelligence (AI) training to 10 people in-house. This “Level 7” is the term used by Cambridge Spark, the training institute chosen by Marks & Spencer. It also corresponds to an official classification of the United Kingdom. “It’s basically a Masters,” says Suze Howse, enterprise data manager at M&S.

Suze Howse describes herself as an M&S veteran – an “M&S lifer”. She started at the checkout and worked her way up to central food planning, before taking on a digital and data-related role two years ago and taking over as CEO last year. of a data team. Suze Howse has been with the company for 14 years. She became Head of Data Strategy in 2019.

“My role is to contribute to the activity on a larger scale and to establish partnerships within this framework,” she explains to our colleagues from Computer Weekly. [propriété de Techtarget, également propriétaire du MagIT]. ” [Je cherche à] promote and understand what data is and why it matters, and how to approach it, and then derive value and decision support from it. “.

Suze Howse’s team consists of engineers and data architects, as well as technical delivery managers. “They are driving the migration to our cloud platform. This is an important part of our transformation, in partnership with Microsoft,” she explains. “We also have product and data science teams. Their role is to identify problems within the business and use data science to solve them while generating value.

“As an example, we have developed a model that selects the optimal selling price in our Clothing and Home Goods department. It automates the process and thus saves our salespeople a lot of manual work. In addition, it optimizes the balance between customer-side experience and M&S-side benefit. »

Acceleration of skill development

Since 2018, M&S has trained 280 people, as well as 500 of its key senior managers, in data competence through Level 4 Data Analyst training and Level 3 Data Technician course .

In a blog post on Marks & Spencer’s corporate website, Suze Howse wrote: “We have 10 colleagues on our team, most of whom are graduates of our Level 4 Data Analyst program. They have started their progression towards level 7 and became professionals at the forefront of their discipline. In 15 months, they learned a whole range of data science techniques, in areas such as modelling, machine learningor the automation and optimization of business processes”.

“To put this approach into context, most companies would consider it a privilege to have a Level 7 graduate on staff; we have 10. Which shows how serious we are about data here at M&S. »

“Along with the business benefits, the new program has a number of beneficial effects on our talent pipeline. First, it helps us attract and retain them. Indeed, no other brand has a level 7 program [au Royaume-Uni]. Second, it allows us to nurture our existing talent, encouraging more of our 70,000 people to consider a career in the data industry. »

And Suze Howse explained to Computer Weekly: “This is the first data science and AI learning program dedicated to employees who have a certain level of understanding in the data space. Concretely, this means that we now have 10 employees in the discipline who are not data scientists”.

“These people come from other industries – apparel, household products, retail and real estate; some from the digital and data domain. They are data champions in their space,” she continues. “They now have the opportunity to increase their technical knowledge, and thus continue their role as ambassadors in the field of data, but also in that of more advanced data science techniques. »

At M&S, data practitioners train executives

Suze Howse also tells Computer Weekly about the reverse mentorship scheme for key M&S executives. “The interest shown by our leadership team across the business has been exceptional,” she explains. “As an example, Katie Bickerstaffe, Director of Operations, is one of the people involved in mentoring.”

Marks & Spencer’s approach is to partner leaders and practitioners from across the business, based on the interests of each. “So they may want to learn more about data science, or about analytical tools. We then select the right practitioner and establish the partnership, then we organize monthly meetings. »

Marks & Spencer organizes internal events dedicated to digital and data processing – the “DigiFest” – as well as a half-yearly hackathon.

“DigiFest is my favorite event,” continues Suze Howse. “We launched it in 2019. It is an annual event that we organize at the company level. This is a conference on all aspects of digital. And we invite every M&S employee to attend. Even the stores benefit from an admittedly reduced version of the event, because we value the contact they have with the customers”.

“The whole question comes down to knowing our behavior in relation to our digital strategy. What did we deliver that was exceptional through our partnership with Ocado, our mobile app or the Cambridge Spark plugs? We have invited speakers. And it was an opportunity for us to speak directly to our employees and make them feel that they were really part of it. Our role is not limited to piloting and delivering a digital strategy; it also consists of establishing a partnership with the activity and making it a reality with its operational staff. »

Events open to all trades

In 2021, 2,500 M&S employees attended DigiFest, including 300 face-to-face.

“I don’t think anyone would expect to see M&S as the first retail brand to launch a data science and AI learning program. And yet we did. “.

Suze HowseHead of Enterprise Data, Marks & Spencer

“I don’t think anyone would expect to see M&S as the first retail brand to launch a data science and AI learning program. And yet we did. »

The retailer also has a cloud data platform – Beam – which encompasses its data education resources, and from which it has developed a “Beam Academy”, launched a year ago. The Beam Academy, explains Suze Howse, is the logical continuation of the level 4 data analyst program. “For example, an entire quarter of training was devoted to Power BI, our self-service data visualization tool” , she explains. This training concerned the stores, as well as all the colleagues; it gave them confidence in interacting with Power BI and accessing the database,” she adds.

“As far as I’m concerned, the key is my long career at M&S. I know our reputation in many areas; quality food, quality products…”, continues Suze Howse. “We are a well-known British brand, our heritage is considerable. But in my opinion, people rarely think about the boundaries that we are pushing in our digital and data business. And I believe this Level 7 apprenticeship is a truly outstanding example of that. »

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How Marks & Spencer trains its employees in data science

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