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Today marks a huge milestone for Digital & Data at M&S, as the retailer launches a brand-new Level 7 Data Science & AI apprenticeship for its colleagues – a world first in the retail industry. 
The new programme is the latest investment in M&S’s drive to digitally upskill its colleagues to help power its transformation and put data at the heart of its decision-making. Head of Enterprise Data, Suzanne Howse, explains.

Since 2018 we’ve been on an all-encompassing journey to transform our business and make M&S special again. Having moved on from the ‘fixing the basics’ stage of our transformation, we’re now shaping the future of M&S – which is what our exciting new Level 7 apprenticeship is all about. 

In our quest to become a digital first retailer, we’ve been working hard to develop a digitally enabled culture where decisions are made based on data rather than just gut feel. We’ve already made great strides in this area - our investment in data literacy programmes has already helped upskill 280 colleagues and 500 of our senior leaders – but we’re not done yet. 

Unlocking untapped value and catapulting M&S to the next level

Today marks another huge step forward in our data journey, as we launch a brand-new, highly sought-after, in-house Level 7 Data Science & AI apprenticeship in partnership with leading education provider Cambridge Spark, in-turn creating the world’s first ever Data Science and AI Academy in retail.

Our cohort of 10 colleagues – many of whom are graduates of our Level 4 Data Analyst programme - today begin their journey to Level 7 and becoming leading professionals in their field. Over the next 15 months they’ll learn a series of cutting-edge data science techniques, in areas such as modelling, machine learning and automating & optimising business processes. 

They’ll also learn how to develop and implement new data-driven AI solutions into our operations – something we forecast to be worth millions to our business; value we previously could only dream of unlocking.

Why are we doing this?

Unlocking this additional and previously untapped value is what will catapult us to the next level and stay ahead of our competitors. To put this in perspective, most businesses would feel privileged to have one Level 7 graduate in their workforce; we will have 10 – which underlines just how serious we are about data here at M&S.

We’re acutely aware of the opportunity that lies within data science at M&S. If you look at the typical ‘Plan’, ‘Buy’, ‘Move’, ‘Sell’ retail value chain, the potential for data science spans from the beginning of the design process for products, through to improved buying and allocation and finally into how we operate our stores and interact with our customers, which includes our Sparks loyalty programme. 

Data helps M&S deliver personalised offers to Sparks customers

Our personalisation algorithms, which produce tailored offers for each of our 13m+ Sparks customers, wouldn’t be possible without the power of data science.

As well as the commercial benefits, the new programme will bring a number of benefits to our talent pipeline. Firstly, it will help us attract and retain talent – as the esteemed Level 7 programme isn’t available at any other retailers. 

Secondly, it will help us nurture our existing talent – encouraging more and more of our 70,000 colleagues to consider a career in data, given the clear development opportunities on offer via our three pathways.

The journey so far

We kicked off our data journey back in 2018, launching our Level 4 Data Analyst apprenticeship to stepchange our behaviour and decision-making across the business. From that point on, we have been steadfast in our push to driving data literacy across the organisation - launching the Level 3 Data Technician course to open up our programmes to an even wider pool of colleagues, and hiring a dedicated Head of Data Science, Mehdi Hosseini, to kickstart & oversee our growing Data Science team. 

Three and a half years later, more than 280 colleagues have benefitted from our data literacy programmes, making a tangible difference to the way we operate and think. Data and insight is now at the heart of everything we do – from the way we conduct markdowns to the way we conduct and evaluate in-store trials.

M&S hosts business-wide tech events, including a bi-annual Hackathon

To sustain the momentum across the organisation, we continue to host a series of business-wide events and campaigns such as DigiFest and our famous bi-annual hackathon, which this year has already led to a number of innovations and improvements to our operations and helped increase our D&D community to over 900 colleagues.

Final reflection

There is this idea within the tech community that we’re now at the cusp of a new technological revolution, and that in order to survive in this post-digital economy, businesses must ensure they invest in their ABCs: Artificial intelligence (AI), Big data, and the Cloud. 

With our brilliant cloud data platform BEAM, which will house all of our tools, analytics & reporting (the cloud); our digital & data learning hub the BEAM Academy which incorporates all of our education resources such as our portfolio of data literacy programmes (big data); and our explorative focus on AI and Data Science via our new Level 7 programme (artificial intelligence), we’re setting ourselves up to not just survive in this new world, but thrive.