Kat Dixon, Analytics Business Partner at Babcock International, is at the head of the data-driven culture being created at her company. The Manufacturer Editor Joe Bush caught up with her to find out more.
By now, the vast majority of manufacturers, large and small, know how powerful data can be, and in order to be successful in an ever-changing and increasingly technology-driven world, having data at the heart of business operations is a must.
Thus far there has been a tendency among manufacturers to delve into the technicalities of digital transformations, and to look at data solely through the lens of the latest technology and how it can be implemented. However, without the right foundations and organisational structure, no amount of new tech is going to create a data-driven culture.
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Tell us about your background
KD: It’s safe to say, I’ve not come into data analytics via a typical route. I graduated from the University of Kent with a history degree and have worked both at Stonehenge, selling membership for English Heritage, and for Swindon Borough Council at the Museum of the Great Western Railway.
I was lucky enough to get a secondment into business transformation focusing on adult social care. It was there that I started to understand the benefits of data and how it can make a positive impact – even in adult social care which is not a sector thought of as being particularly driven by data.
That’s where I settled into data, and I joined Babcock International in 2018 as a senior analyst in equipment management. Since then, I have worked my way up to being the analytics business partner. In addition, I joined the Royal Wessex Yeomanry in 2016, initially as a medic, as the Royal Armoured Corps frontline roles weren’t open to women at that time. Luckily, that changed soon after I passed the tough selection process. I completed the gunnery course in a Challenger 2 tank, which meant that I became the first female reservist to fire the main armament and machine gun on that particular vehicle.
How does that experience tie into your current role with Babcock?
Babcock obviously supports the military heavily and we actually look after the Challenger 2 tanks as part of the land side of the business. We are a gold level employer for the reservists as the skills and knowledge people gain can be transferred to working at Babcock – not just the hard skills, but attributes such as leadership.
So, while I would say that learning to fire a gun or drive a tank isn’t necessarily a transferable skill to my day job, there are lots of things that I have learned from being part of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry. It has also helped me to understand more about the frontline customer. As the analytics business partner at Babcock International, I lead a team of analysts who are working on a variety of different data led projects, from HR initiatives to KPI management. We try and provide leading as well as lagging indicators to try and identify how we can improve moving forward.
I also act as a data and analytics champion for the business; promoting continuous improvement where teams can adopt data-driven decisions in their areas of the business. A key part of that is about getting the right culture in place as well as the practical, data analytics side of the job.
Can you explain the importance of creating a data-driven culture?
At Babcock, we really understand that culture is intrinsic to everything we do. There’s a saying that data should come second only to people, because it’s they who will be at the forefront of driving forward any change. And digital transformation has to come, first and foremost, from your people and culture.
To do that you need strong leadership to propel that culture forward. At Babcock we have a new CTO who is really pushing that data-driven side of the business. We’re also keenly aware of the importance of using technology and data to collaborate together. There’s a keen awareness that data is really important to implementing those improvements throughout the business and providing a better service to our customers because, ultimately, that’s what we’re here to do.
Manufacturing lends itself to collecting data, but organisations need to make sure that it is accessible to everyone who needs it in order to create useful insights. Of course, there is a technology aspect at play, and you need the right systems in place, but there needs to be a strong data foundation to make that possible.
You can have all the exciting technologies, but you won’t be able to do anything with it if you haven’t got any data. For many manufacturers that accessibility is the biggest stumbling block. That foundation starts with people and culture. I believe that businesses know that already, however, for some the principles of a data-driven digital culture can take a little longer to understand.
How can culture help eliminate data silos?
Siloed working has been a huge challenge for many companies. One of the ways we’re tackling it at Babcock is by introducing a matrix management system where people work in more functional spaces.
For data analytics, for example, we work across the business, not in isolated stovepipes. That gives us full visibility so we’re able to see, for example, if one project is working in the same way as another, and whether we’re able to tie that together and get everyone working in the same way. People became more aware of this issue during lockdown, because everyone was working within a digital environment. It forced people to make more of an effort to break down silos and barriers because they had become far more apparent.
Everyone needs to understand that it’s their role to collaborate with their colleagues from different parts of the business. It’s certainly working within Babcock, and our matrix management system has really helped.
What does a good data-driven culture look like?
The utopia is where everyone is equipped with the knowledge and the confidence to embrace the culture the business is trying to implement. Key to that is involving the L&D department and making sure staff are upskilled in a digital way.
We ran a digital skills pilot with the Southwest Institute of Technology last year, and I worked with them and Exeter University to put together three modules which first covered the basics in data literacy, then onto Excel and Power BI, and finally up to a data science module which taught Python and different coding languages.
That really helped us to not only ensure staff are equipped with the right skills, but also to get people excited about data (which is key to any data-driven culture vision). We were inundated with applications to join the pilot, from every level of the business; everyone was really keen to get involved and learn about data and digital skills. It also taps into the government’s aim to increase digital skills.
We need to close the skills gap to make sure that we are fit for the future. Therefore, learning and development is so important and when people are excited about the topic, it makes for a really good culture. Plus, it also means decisions are being made based on data, and not on people putting their finger in the air to see which way the wind’s blowing. We’ve now got dashboards etc that are at the centre of meetings; data has been made the norm and is now part of everyday operations.
Why is a data-driven culture so important?
Study after study has demonstrated the correlation between having a data-driven culture and increased revenue, improved efficiency and empowered staff. Data can provide the transparency to make decisions faster, verifiable and auditable. That means those decisions are also safer, the business can be more sustainable and it allows for easier innovation and collaboration.
To know where you’re going, you first need to know where you are. So, understanding where everyone is in your business from a digital, data culture perspective is important. That means from the shop floor to the CEO, and it’s only then that work can begin on getting to where you need to go.
So, for any digitalisation journey, the state of culture is the most important thing to start with. And that needs to be kept in mind and changes tracked throughout. It’s important to remember that digital transformation and data-driven culture doesn’t have an end point. Technology is forever evolving and new solutions are coming online all the time. Generations are also changing, as are their attitudes and approaches. Rather than an end, this journey will simply move through different phases.
Therefore, manufacturers need to realise that once a data-driven culture journey has started, it’s never really going to finish. A partner of ours at Babcock will soon be conducting a skills audit, so we’re always questioning where we are. Where do we need to go? What do we need to do to get there? Who can we partner with along the way?
This agile cycle of checking in to see where we have made progress, conducting surveys and touching base with our people, enables us to make sure we’re heading in the right direction. Don’t stop investing in technology but understand that it’s the people using it who are going to make the difference to the business.
What about data skills?
Technology and coding language skills that manufacturers now require are always evolving and changing. Certainly, the skills base that we are looking at for our various business units is going to require different technologies and skill sets over time. It should be remembered, however, that it’s not all about bringing in new people, and at Babcock we’re really good at finding new ways to upskill existing staff to make sure that they stay current and up to date.
For example, we offer a digital technology solutions degree apprenticeship and we also have data fellowships. We offer plenty of options to existing staff, but there’s also a variety of other free courses out there which are relatively quick to complete. New people are definitely coming into the business, but I would say that upskilling existing staff is the best way to tackle skills gaps.
What advice would you give for creating a data-driven culture?
You need a clear vision and strategy as to what you want the business to look like in the future. You don’t need to be ultra prescriptive around how to get there, but people need to know where you want them to go. People need to be empowered to take risks and use the technology that’s available to them. Invest in your data professionals and technology people.
That learning, development and upskilling piece of the journey does take investment in terms of time and money, but it’s so vital and something we’re really focussed on at Babcock. In addition, don’t expect everyone to have the same skill level; not everyone is going to be starting this journey in the same place. Make allowances for that and understand that you will need to constantly review where everyone is on the journey.
Last, but by no means least, keep up momentum, and don’t let things slip. Keep driving that data-driven culture forward. Are the statements that business leaders are making being backed up by data? At Babcock we always get our leaders to question the data behind decisions. It needs to be second nature – data should be second only to people.
What’s next on this never-ending journey?
We’re constantly looking at different ways that we can bring in new courses or learning and development for our people. We’re always horizon scanning and looking to the future for our existing staff and their skill sets, and making sure that ties into the latest technology that’s out there – there’s no point in bringing in technology that no one can use.
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