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Full STEAM ahead: What the arts can offer data science

(Image credit: Image Credit: Geralt / Pixabay)

It’s fashionable for businesses to talk about STEAM: the combination of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, with the arts. UK firms say they want talent from the arts just as much as they want data scientists when looking for new hires. Yet, research shows when they are forced to choose, data leaders rate data analysis as three times more important than storytelling. So, is it just a load of hot air when businesses talk about supporting STEAM? Or, have they got it wrong when they shun arts?

You’re not finished yet

Businesses are beginning to realise that merely having big data isn’t a victory. More and more businesses are taking the next step in their journey and becoming fully data-driven. Two-thirds of UK data leaders see the ability to explain the business impact of insights and data visualisation as their top skill gaps. Becoming data-driven requires squeezing as much value as possible from data the business acquires, as many insights as possible should be found.

However, this isn’t the end of the journey. Quality insights often have important nuances to them which need to be related back to business functions: marketing, sales, operations, in terms they can understand. After all, insights are no use if they cannot be understood. STEAM supporters argue those in traditional STEM fields normally responsible for managing data in businesses lack the ‘right-hand brain’ creativity needed to fully interpret the insights they generate.

So, when businesses are building their data dream teams they are looking for a combination of science and arts-based talents? When UK data leaders were surveyed on the skills they primarily look for, 36 per cent make data analytics their first choice. This is followed by data protection and data governance. These high-value skills are all STEM. Meanwhile, the least sought-for skills are those most needed for relating insights and findings back to the business. Just 18 per cent chose relationship building, with negotiation and liberal arts scoring even lower. Imagine how much potential value from data is lost because of this. What are the consequences of this for business?

The missed benefits

UK data leaders are missing out. Interpretive and storytelling skills are capable of powering business growth by gleaning operational efficiencies and revenue-driving intelligence from data. Any advantage a business can find is critical to maintaining momentum. It will keep them competitive in today’s global arena, fighting off both larger and smaller, more specialised, competitors from across the world.

Pushing arts down the priority list might sound prudent when speaking to hard-nosed C-level execs in board meetings but this is a myopic outlook. Data analytics, protection and governance are all still key skills but not in isolation. Every technical-minded Wozniak needs a the creative-minded Steve Jobs to complement them. Data-driven businesses should rely on a balance of technical and creative skills if they want to reach the true ‘data nirvana’ they seek. With more and more businesses having solid data storage and governing capabilities, a leader that sees themselves and their business as data-driven needs to maximise the value from their data and tell stories around it to stay ahead of the competition. So what does this mean in practice?

Practising what you preach

Businesses want to reach their competitor-crushing, value-maximising, data-driven promised land. To do this there has to be a culture change leading to a shift in how and where the value of talents in a business are weighted.

Foremost, businesses need to lose the STEM snobbery and acquire art-minded, creative talent before it’s too late. It’s well-known there is a ‘war on talent’ and it is not just limited to data scientists. If businesses take too long to acquire the ‘A’ in STEAM they might find the ship has sailed without them and competitors recognising the advantages of this approach have snapped up the best the market has to offer before they even got a look-in. This could effectively make employees with high-skill art backgrounds an economically unavailable resource in any meaningful quantity to SMEs.

Talent doesn’t solely come from outside though. There’s likely plenty of art and humanities-based employees already hidden within businesses. ‘Identification and redeployment of transferable skills’ (52 per cent) and ‘upskill through internal/external training’ (47 per cent) are the top two strategies for obtaining skill sets in a market with constricted availability of talent. With support, similar to cybersecurity filling empty seats through transfers from other departments, data leaders can do the same to fill their battle lines. With nurturing and encouragement hidden talent can be brought out and motivated to apply their skills to their businesses’ data and the interpretation of it.

It’s not just about bodies though, training is key. This can mean both educating technical staff on the benefits and skills of the arts. It can also mean identifying candidates in other areas of the business who already have the talent being searched for.

Once enough creative talent has been acquired, it should be a case of integrating the technical and creative personnel together for maximum effectiveness. Siloed employees won’t generate the same level of insights and there will be less opportunity for the osmosis of skills and talents between employees as they interact and work together. Diverse teams breed new approaches and fresh thinking, exactly what is required here. This not only applies to different skill sets and education but also social backgrounds, gender, and other demographics.

Bringing employees from different skill backgrounds together will also aid the culture challenge of placing a higher value on all members of the STEAM acronym. Businesses that don’t value the arts and liberal studies won’t put the resources into acquiring these skills.

Businesses are right to value the analytical minds needed to govern and protect the increasingly vast volumes of data. However, it would be a mistake to not also place equal value on the skills employees with artistic and humanities-based backgrounds have to offer. It becomes imperative to invest in talent of all kinds, whether it be creative, scientific or analytical talent to manage and make the most of data. To stay ahead of the pack, data leaders need to be smart and create diverse data-driven teams before anyone else does.

Bill Hammond, founder and event director, Big Data LDN

Bill Hammond
Bill Hammond is the Event Director of Big Data London. The event hosts leading, global data and analytics experts, focused on delivering effective data-driven strategy.