The Science & Technology Committee's recent report, The Big Data Dilemma, deserves much credit for recognising the importance of data to government and the UK economy, and identifying routes to realising its potential.
Among them, it rightly mentions the challenge of developing the right data skills. However, I can't help feeling it lacks some important specifics regarding what these skills should be.
Much of the language is reminiscent of similar reports on digital literacy. Vague phrases are used (complete with quotation marks around big data as if it's some alien term), such as 'the wider set of ‘big data’ skills is not being strategically addressed' and 'the government should commit to … increasing big data skills training for staff in government departments'.
> See also: Do you have what it takes to be a data leader?
None of this is wrong. Where it falls short is clearly saying what these skills are.
Harnessing the disruptive potential of data is not a case of putting one person in every department on a two week course. And whatever the intentions of the Committee, it is open to being read that way.
Doing the kind of disruptive, transformational activities the report aspires to requires real, in depth understanding of data. It needs people who are familiar with looking at experimental data and understanding what it means, and whether it is valid to prove or disprove a theory.
These are not just skills, but a mindset which is usually developed through scientific study, such as during a science or maths degree.
Of course data science degrees and technology courses can also instil this mindset, and it can be learned in other ways. But it is not a skill that can be picked up on a short course in the way that, say, photo editing or project management can.
Such skills are not the end of the story. They must be applied in the context of the operational and technical environment, combining strategy, IT and data expertise. The report is spot on when it calls for:' A mix of technical skills, analytical and industry knowledge, and the business sense and soft skills to turn data into value for employers'. It just needs to be a bit more specific as to what and how.
Few people offer all these skills in one brain (if you find someone who does, make them a job offer immediately). Government departments and data heavy businesses need to develop teamsresponsible for using data in innovative and disruptive ways, which combine all these skills and whose members share a common language.
So, some suggestions to add the report would be:
Set up cross functional teams in all government departments (or businesses) with responsibility for turning data into clear actionable insights that can be understood by the organisation's decision makers.
Ensure that you have people embedded in these teams (ie properly briefed and with clear reporting lines) with a deep, scientific understanding of how data works.
Also include people with IT and technical skills – people who understand both the organisational IT infrastructure and the world of the internet and its disruptive potential.
Include domain experts in the team to help frame the problems that need solving and ensure the eventual recommendations are workable, eg Department of Health teams should include medical professionals and hospital managers.
Recruit translators to these teams who actively contribute to the organisation's strategy, but who also have a solid understanding of data science, technology and the subject area, and can bridge the gap between them. These tend to be people who have spend considerable time in a technical field before moving into management.