Could M&S’s new data academy secure its digital-first future?

Could M&S’s new data academy secure its digital-first future?

In an effort to combat the digital retail shadow cast by the likes of Amazon, UK high street store Marks & Spencer has teamed up with digital training organisation Decoded to create a data academy. Andrew Hobbs considers whether the program could give the retailer’s digital arm a vital injection.

The 18 month in-work data skills initiative will see over a thousand M&S employees become more digitally savvy. They will take part in The Data Fellowship – Decoded’s ‘accelerated technical development programme for high-potential employees’.

The programme is fully funded by the government’s Apprenticeship Levy, a billion pound fund created to help upskill the UK workforce to be ready for the future of work.

The M&S Data Academy will gather employees from all aspects of its retail business, from store managers and visual merchandisers to finance and buying, and see them go hands on with technology such as artificial intelligence (seen as key to the future of retail by some).

Participants will emerge with a Data Analytics qualification accredited by the British Computing Society and knowledge of programming languages R and Python.

Becoming data-literate retailers

M&S hopes the programme will place digital at the heart of its business and create a raft of data-skilled leaders to implement digital transformation across the business.

M&S claims the partnership is the world’s first Data Academy in retail, though Decoded has previously worked with Harrods, Walmart and Ikea.

In a frank assessment of the importance of digital transformation to its survival, M&S Chief Executive Steve Rowe said:

“This is our biggest digital investment in our people to date and the creation of the M&S Data Academy will upskill colleagues and provide them with an in-depth level of digital literacy as well as a Data Analytics qualification.

“Transformation of our business is key to survival and a huge part of this lies with our colleagues. We need to change their digital behaviours, mindsets and our culture to make the business fit for the digital age and our partnership with Decoded will enable us to do this.”

Praising M&S’s commitment to ‘future-facing skills’ Decoded co-founder Kathryn Parsons said:

Every leader in business today should take note. Education is the answer to The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Internet of Business says

In many ways the retail industry is at the forefront of technology-driven change, reflected in the widely reported fall of many household names in retail. Meanwhile, Ocado, AirBnB, and Amazon have thrived on a data-driven strategy. The future of retail lies in connecting with the customer.

The ‘need it now’ mentality of today’s shoppers sees convenience take precedence over brand loyalty, with many customers favouring online shopping.

Those with a stake in physical stores must innovate too. Predictive recommendations and smart fitting rooms are now a reality – with AR, the internet of things and AI set to transform the industry further.

M&S is finally waking to the fast-changing reality of modern retail, and while its dedication to upskilling its existing employees is admirable, we question whether training your business leaders to code is the right approach, given that many of them won’t be directly applying those skills once back on the job.

M&S will need to do more to ensure a significant long-term presence both on the high street and online. To its credit, it plans to do just that. In November 2017 Steve Rowe admitted that M&S still had “many structural issues to tackle” as it embarked “on the next five years of [its] transformation.”

Then, in January this year, the retailers announced its Technology Transformation Programme, designed to create a more agile, faster and commercial technology function that would deliver growth and make M&S a digital-first business.

It has gone on to adopt a new technology-centric operating model with the help of its principle technology partner Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

With a digital-first approach and an enhanced customer experience, informed by data insights, M&S could stake its claim on the future retail landscape. In the words of Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts, retail stores of the future must do, “more than just sell… Retail’s not dying. But it has to evolve.”