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Talent in data: Retaining data talent in the hottest of hot markets

The war for talent in data has never been more competitive. To find out how organisations are attempting to stand out from a packed crowd, DataIQ asked senior data leaders to share their talent retention challenges, philosophies and success stories.
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In the age of the empowered employee, data professionals can play an even stronger hand than most. Eight out of ten organisations surveyed by DataIQ this year are pursuing a business transformation with the vision of becoming digital-first or customer-first. Digital, customer-centric businesses need data-driven insights, putting data talent in hot demand. With opportunities aplenty, it can be difficult for organisations to stand out from a packed crowd.

But what can organisations do to retain their data talent in an increasingly competitive market? How can data leaders strike a balance between what’s best for talent and what’s best for business? Is jumping ship every 18 months the best option for data talent looking to move up the career ladder? To find out, DataIQ asked senior data leaders to share their talent retention challenges, philosophies and success stories.

Unrealistic expectations?

“My biggest problem is inexperience, when I bring people in at entry-level they don’t quite see that they’ve got a good gig here in that we’re focused on developing them,” explained Bhavik Davda, general manager of strategic development at Superdrug. Davda’s team is bottom-heavy and comprised primarily of early-career analysts. Superdrug’s practitioners are given time and space to develop, but that doesn’t stop them from looking for roles elsewhere. “When I lose someone after two years, I’ve only really had a year’s worth of value out of them – for the practitioners starting out, two years probably isn’t enough time to develop before moving on to a role with higher expectations,” he explained.

Davda believes that the propensity for young talent to jump ship has been fuelled by the “LinkedInification” of career expectations. “People are often tempted away by what they’ve seen their peers sharing on LinkedIn, or by online recruiters offering better titles or a slightly higher salary – forgetting to think about the culture they’re going into.”

“It’s important to be clear on what’s right for your development, not someone else’s.”

Robert Bates, head of decision sciences at Currys, believes that basic comparisons can be both misleading and harmful. “There’s always going to be someone that you feel is doing better than you, but pathways differ greatly,” he said. As in-demand staff pursue their passion projects, it is all-to-easy to be tempted by the type of online peacocking that has become increasingly prevalent on LinkedIn.

“You could see someone working on a certain algorithm and feel like you’re missing out, or look on LinkedIn and see people at Amazon working on exciting projects, but you won’t be seeing all the incredibly boring stuff they’re working on and not sharing,” Bates explained. “It’s important to be clear on what’s right for your development, not someone else’s.”

Naturally, larger organisations have more to offer to assuage career-FOMO. The GSK Consumer Healthcare data team was in a unique position going into the pandemic, having formed in October 2019. “I joke that we’re the team that Covid made because there were two of us when I started, and there’s 130 of us today,” explained director of data innovation Chris Yates. GSK Consumer Healthcare is set to break away from the wider organisation early next year – a process that has been guided by its rapidly expanding data office. “We ride the back of a particularly interesting wave,” explained Yates. “We’re a greenfield data team supporting a brand new FTSE100 company.” This kind of purpose can go a long way in keeping talent on board for the long haul. However, this is an admittedly unique scenario, and excitement can wear off quickly.

Opportunities for development

Over the long term, development opportunities can help to both entice and retain talent. “We invest heavily in training and support – such as DataIQ’s data academy – which is always a good draw,” explained Yates. “It’s one of our big selling points, just how much training we’ve got available.”

One chief data officer at a loyalty business pursues a similar line of thinking. They joined the organisation just over a year ago, faced with a 25% churn rate among its data professionals. “People are more likely to stay in a role if they know they’re in a space in which they can work on new projects and update their CV,” they explained. “Learning and development requires foresight and flexibility because there’s always something new coming down the line in our industry, and through our talent academy we can upskill our staff in whatever that new thing is.”

“Hard skills are undoubtedly important for the CV, but in reality it’s investing in the soft skills that everyone misses.”

Research by Deloitte shows that companies with an internal learning platform experience a 0.3-point improvement in job satisfaction among data scientists compared to those that don’t. But is technical development a top priority for the data office? Anyone that has attended a DataIQ event or roundtable will have heard data leaders bemoan the lack of communication skills among data talent. “Hard skills are undoubtedly important for the CV, but in reality it’s investing in the soft skills that everyone misses,” explained Davda.

Algorithms and analysis can only go so far when the teams behind them fail to translate insights to the business. “You want your junior talent to develop technically, but at the same time develop as storytellers,” said one data leader. “This can be taught, but it takes time – making it frustrating when people leave.” This struggle isn’t exclusive to the data office. Development programmes come with the trade-off that up-skilled talent is increasingly employable elsewhere.

Research suggests that opportunities for progression can prevent talent from becoming poachable. Upgraded job titles result in a 0.5-point increase in job satisfaction among data scientists, according to Deloitte’s study. But with progression comes greater responsibility, and not all data practitioners are cut out for senior positions. “I haven’t met one practitioner yet that doesn’t want to manage people, because it shows career development,” explained Davda. “but often many practitioners don’t really want to manage people.”

Making room for progression

Identifying those suitable for promotion is one thing, making room for progression is another. Indeed, 46% of respondents to a recent DataIQ survey highlighted a lack of room for promotion as a key contributor to churn in their data office.  Bates explained that in the classic pyramid structure, those actively involved in analytics and modelling are guided by a set of experienced practitioners with management responsibilities. “The problem in retail is that there often isn’t room for all of our practitioners who become good managers to progress at the same rate,” he explained. “There isn’t the depth of roles available.”

“46% of respondents to a recent DataIQ survey highlighted a lack of room for promotion as a key contributor to churn in their data office.”

Thanks to sheer scope, large tech organisations will always have the next big thing to offer. Consultancies are constantly growing their verticals and expanding their management layer. For everyone else, it can be difficult to strike the right balance between development and progression. Bates said: “We risk losing good people as we can’t meet their development aspirations beyond a certain point.”

Bates has sought to remedy this by encouraging members of his team to step out into the wider business. “Some data scientists will want to stick to technical work: coding and modelling; but for those that don’t, it’s on us as leaders to encourage them to take the relevant steps towards those commercial roles,” he said. “We may lose some of them as data scientists, but we’ll gain them as allies in the business.”

This is where shrewd management on the part of data leaders comes into play. Early career practitioners are often too inexperienced to know what they want to pursue. “You don’t know what you don’t want to do – whether that’s working in management or in a commercial role – unless you try it,” said Davda. Experienced leaders can help to guide talent along their career paths, but there is an acceptance that development could involve gaining experience in a new industry, role or organisation.  

“There’s only so much we can do to keep someone here – we can try to increase salaries, move personnel onto new projects or give them greater responsibility, but ultimately if they have bigger plans then that’s their decision,” explained one chief data officer. “Unless you’re Facebook or Google, there’s always going to be a chance you’ll be used as a steppingstone – you’ve just got to be open minded to that.” To this end, it might be time for data leaders to stop asking what they can do to retain their talent. Instead, maybe it’s time to consider how best to extract value from a fluctuating data office.

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