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How to embrace data and unlock technology’s true potential

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Jonathan Westley, Chief Data Officer, Experian UK&I

 

“We have entered an exponential age”, as writer and technologist Azeem Azhar said. Ours is the first era in human history in which technology is constantly accelerating, while society and businesses struggle to keep pace.

The digital world is fast becoming a cornerstone of our global society. Almost everything we do – whether that’s work, socialising, or learning – is being reframed by how we embrace technology. I strongly believe developments in Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean we are on the brink of a transformative change in how our society functions, similar, or perhaps greater, in scale to the introduction of electricity. However, if we are to unlock the true potential of this digital future, we must change how we think about the fundamental building blocks of technology: data.

It is no overstatement to say that data has the capacity to transform society by distributing decision-making throughout every part of an organisation. But the positive potential of data for consumer experiences and the greater good often falls through the gaps. Many believe it is a technical, specialist subject that requires years of study to understand. At worst, it can make people think about cybercrime and big tech corporations harvesting personal data through opaque means. This in turn discourages individuals from potential careers in data or embracing data within their organisation.

Government, businesses, and the education sector have to work together to address these misconceptions and bring data out of the realm of specialists, and into the real world. The UK’s National Data Strategy is a step in the right direction, setting out a clear vision of “digital Britain” and a framework to make data more usable, accessible and available across the UK economy.
Here are four key opportunities to encourage businesses and consumers alike to embrace data.

 

Demonstrate the value of data for personalisation

We must highlight the business benefits of using data collection to create truly personalised and seamless customer experiences. Too often, businesses’ data processes are not joined up – leading to a clunky and interruptive experience for customers. Brands that can’t recognise individuals across channels waste spend, messaging and targeting. Seeing the same advert for a product you bought last week isn’t productive for the company or consumer.

For these companies, the challenge isn’t access to data, it’s about using it cohesively to provide a smoother digital experience. To drive buy-in for the value of data within a business, it helps to demonstrate that using data to improve personalisation is likely to boost customer experience and, ultimately, sales.

 

Simplify how we talk about data

Seeking consent and letting customers know what their data is being used for is already mandatory, but many companies rely on procedural and complex language to explain their data management processes. This strengthens the myth that data is a specialist field that is too complicated for the average person to engage with. We need to simplify and reframe how we talk about data management processes to consumers if we have any hope of helping people to perceive it as an accessible and interesting topic.

Using simple language to explain clearly why data is being collected feels more authentic, meaning it’s more likely to be persuasive. A polite, honest and simple explanation can inspire more trust, even when the data is being collected for marketing purposes.

 

Tackle ‘data career myths’

Changing attitudes to data should start in schools and universities, where many students disregard a career in data due to key misconceptions about the industry. Experian’s research found that 68% of students believe qualifications in maths or science are needed to succeed in a data role, while 72% believe specific data skills are required to apply for a data-related job. Gender also plays a role in the apprehension over data jobs, with men more likely to consider a data-related field (60% compared to 48% of women).

The reality is that in the digital economy of the future, the majority of jobs will involve data, with 234,000 vacancies currently available for data roles in the UK. To fill them, we need to dispel the myth that everyone must become a data scientist or a coder. Rather than seeing data interpretation as a specialist skill that few have, we need to shift mindsets so that it is viewed as a foundational skill. In fact, there are many data roles that do not necessarily require advanced data analytics qualifications, including data security and governance, data processors and data engineers. Even AI solutions can now be created via AI tools for non-coders.

To widen the candidate pool and ignite students’ interest in data, we also need to combat the outdated perception of data roles as ‘boring’ – in reality, many cutting-edge brands, like Google and Tesla, are based on innovative use of data. Consideration around how to broaden the appeal of data roles to entice students from a wide range of backgrounds and offer them a range of career paths will also be vital. Universities should no longer be seen as the sole source of all data candidates.

 

Show off the global, positive impact of data

Finally, data is too often considered in the abstract by the public. People need real-life examples to engage with, and data gives us those very insights needed to inspire public support and willpower for real action.

There’s no better way of demonstrating data’s impact on the real world than showcasing how it is helping humanity to address global crises, such as COVID-19 and climate change.

Take Experian DataLabs, which helped the NHS plan for future waves of COVID-19 cases by modelling the disease characteristics with daily updated public information. Data scientists used advanced technology and more than 10 public and proprietary data sources to create a simulator that forecasts when and where the next wave of the virus was likely to have an impact on hospital resources – helping the NHS to plan distribution and supply chain.

If we really want to inspire a change in attitude to data, we must spotlight these relatable, impactful data case studies with a clear positive societal outcome. Changing how businesses communicate about data will collectively improve society’s understanding, and our willingness to embrace its full potential.

 

Banking

Poor software testing puts banks at high risk of IT failures

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 Sune Engsig, VP Product at Leapwork

 

IT failures have plagued the banking industry for several years. From the TSB computer systems meltdown in 2018 costing the bank £330m and causing 80,000 customers to switch to a competitor, to Lloyds, Halifax and Bank of Scotland suffering an IT glitch on payday this year with customers’ faster payments and transfers being delayed.

Despite MPs calling for regulators to act, condemning the number of IT failures in the financial services sector as ‘unacceptable,’ the industry continues to let them happen leaving more and more irate customers locked out of their accounts. But with bank branches disappearing fast, customers are now far more reliant on online and mobile banking, so ensuring technology systems function correctly is paramount.  When you consider the complex compliance and regulatory setup of banks and other financial institutions, and the fact that they are dealing with incredibly sensitive customer information, those that do experience outages can face irreversible consequences such as loss of customer loyalty, severe reputational damage and regulatory fines.

A critical step in mitigating IT failures is having effective testing capabilities in place to find and fix any errors before new software is rolled out to market or new IT migrations take place. This lowers the risk of software failures and outages occurring after launch. Yet, 70% of software testers in banking and financial services think it’s acceptable to release software that hasn’t been properly tested, so long as it’s patched later, according to research by Leapwork. Furthermore, only 40% think software failures are a big risk to their company. But when the impact of an IT failure is so severe, why do banks still take risks?

 

Software testing challenges

Despite the swathes of software businesses now rely upon, 85% of software testing is still done manually. When it comes to the banking sector, as these institutions continue to develop new digitised products and services with increasingly sophisticated and customised software, it is clear that manual testing can no longer be the default. It is time-consuming, cannot scale amidst a skills crisis, and leaves companies open to human error.

There is a huge amount of pressure on IT teams to develop and release new software or manage new IT migrations. A critical step on this journey is having effective testing capabilities in place, like test automation, to find and fix any errors and bugs before new software is rolled out to market. This lowers the risk of outages and failures occurring after launch, which can negatively impact a company’s reputation and bottom line.

However, while some organisations recognise the value of automation tools, many continue to rely too heavily on code-dependant tools which, while an improvement on manual testing, are incredibly complicated to use and thus require specific skills and experience to operate. This means they too are impossible to scale, as they often depend upon developer skills.

 

Skills shortage forcing banks to take risks

Ensuring you undertake proper software testing seems like a no-brainer, but 40% of software goes to market without sufficient testing. The reason why; one in five (21%) of banking and financial services testers say ‘lack of available skilled developers.’ As companies transition from manual to automated testing, which typically requires coding skills, the major global developer skills shortage is creating bottlenecks, increasing costs and delaying project delivery times as development teams try to upskill manual testers, hire new talent or lean on existing developers.

As a result of the skills shortage, only 30% of testers in banking and financial services say they’re using some element of automation (i.e., an automation tool or a combination of manual and automation). In fact, 40% of CEOs across all industries think the fact that their company still relies on manual testing is the main reason why software isn’t tested properly, with 58% of testers in banking and financial services saying ‘underinvestment in test automation’ is the reason sufficient testing does not occur.

 

Testing issues not on CEOs’ agenda until too late

Across all sectors, 69% of CEOs think it’s acceptable to release software that hasn’t been properly tested, so long as it’s patched later, but 68% of testers claim their teams spend five to 10 days per year patching software. While nearly all testers express concern that insufficiently tested software is going to market, the overwhelming majority (75%) of CEOs say they’re confident their software is tested regularly. These numbers show a huge disconnect between CEOs and testers indicating that testing issues are falling under the radar and not being escalated until it’s too late.

 

Moving toward an automated future

Banking and financial services have been thought of as slow-moving and lacking innovation in the past. That isn’t the case anymore, as we’ve seen the industry take great strides towards digitalisation in recent years. However, with that digital transformation and integration of software comes outages, the consequences of which mean millions of pounds lost.

UK banks are at high risk of IT failures due to insufficient software testing, and a reliance on manual testing. On the current trajectory, more and more banks will struggle with failures and outages which could cost them a significant amount in financial and reputational damage. To minimise risk, they need to transition from manual to automated testing and explore testing options that don’t require coding skills so it’s easier to hire in talent or upskill existing team members, whether that be testers or everyday business users. Only then can they increase productivity and time to market while decreasing risk and costs.

 

 

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Financial Services Makes Gains In Employee Engagement

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By Phil Chambers, GM Workday Peakon Employee Voice 

 

A new report shows that the financial services industry improved in almost all elements of employee engagement last year. Can such momentum be sustained?

After more than two years of change, one thing is certain: keeping workers engaged has become more challenging – and more urgent. Record numbers of workers have left their jobs in the UK. And, as turnover has increased, employee engagement – people’s mental and emotional investment in their work and workplace – has been tested. In today’s climate, engagement isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a business imperative – especially as companies with engaged employees are known to reap benefits including higher productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability.

The financial services industry hasn’t been immune from the so-called Great Reshuffle. But, according to Workday’s latest State of Engagement Report, it did make measurable gains in employee engagement during 2021. Of the 17 industries analysed, financial services’ engagement ranking jumped from ninth to fifth place.

The report analysed nearly 9 million employee responses from almost 2.5 million employees throughout 2021. It compared the engagement scores given by employees working in different industries over the 12-month period, as well as scores for the 14 drivers of engagement – including autonomy, goal setting, meaningful work, reward, and recognition.

Organisations in the financial services industry have been considered less   quick to evolve than others. PwC recently characterised insurance companies, for instance, as “traditionally risk-averse and slow to change”. But, as the report shows, financial services clearly made some improvements. It is noteworthy given the enduring pandemic-related economic turbulence of 2021 – and the fact that during that time global engagement scores overall slightly declined.

 

Where The Financial Services Industry Improved in Employee Engagement

Remarkably, the financial services industry saw increased rankings and scores in all but one of the 14 engagement drivers that the State of Engagement report measures.

Of all 17 industries analysed, financial services took top place for goal setting by the end of 2021 (up from sixth at the start of the year) and landed among the top three sectors for strategy and recognition too. These strong results indicate the industry provided clear direction to its people at both individual and organisational levels, and appropriately recognised employees when they met their goals.

The improvement in the industry’s overall engagement, however, was driven largely by a sizable increase in its environment driver score in 2021, suggesting that a significant number of employees responded positively to having more freedom around where they worked during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, it was unusual for financial services firms to offer flexible options at all. But, in 2021, more than ever before, many firms’ employees were working remotely or enjoying a hybrid of both remote and in-office work – as and when offices started to re-open. This unprecedented choice in where, how, and when they worked was appreciated, as the report indicates, by many workers in the sector.

 

Where There’s Room For Improvement

As the report found, many employees feel the amount of work they have is increasingly unmanageable. Workload continues to be a pain point across all industries globally, with workload satisfaction scores dipping slightly in 2021. At the end of the year, financial services received its lowest engagement-driver score for workload and ranked 11th among the 17 industries analysed.

This indicates employees in the financial services industry found their workload less manageable as the year progressed, which is perhaps unsurprising when considering the pandemic’s ongoing toll in many parts of the world, and the fact that remote working can lead to ‘always-on’ work lives.

To help mitigate burnout risk and diminished engagement going forward, financial services leaders and managers will need to stay close to their employees in the months ahead to find out how they can best support them, whether that’s with additional resources, greater work flexibility, or updated benefits. By regularly staying abreast of people’s needs and taking the necessary action, organisations can spot potential problems before they lead to resignations.

 

What The Industry Should Avoid Going Forward

In recent months, we’ve seen some financial institutions try to take a “return to normal” approach, requesting their people go back to working onsite five days a week. But, as the report shows, this approach may not be the best one for everyone, particularly as the past two years have revealed that many employees appreciate and benefit from a greater degree of flexibility.

Of course, not all organisations will be able to provide hybrid or remote arrangements for all their people. But greater flexibility doesn’t necessarily have to mean working remotely. It could mean more flexible scheduling options, or a shift in working hours to enable a greater work-life balance.

Either way, to retain the engagement gains achieved in 2021, the financial services industry should resist the temptation to look back, and must instead take learnings from the past two years. Amid so much economic and societal change, and with employees continuing to shift jobs in record numbers, companies cannot simply go back to before, but need to continue moving forward, listening to the needs of their people, and leading with empathy.

Specifically, leaders and managers in financial services will need to stay closer than ever to employee feedback, going beyond listening and working fast to implement change accordingly.

For the industry to continue making positive gains in employee engagement, it will need to: consider how to retain a degree of flexibility – updating models to reflect evolving employee needs; continue to provide clear individual and organisational direction to those working remotely and on site; create and maintain more manageable workloads through prioritisation and automating repetitive tasks; and continue to reward and recognise employees for their hard work and achievements.

While great strides were made last year, it’s more important now than ever that leaders in the financial services industry determine and understand how employees are feeling so that organisations can explore and shape a future of work that works for everyone.

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