Data skills jedi training: Creating a data fluent workforce

What does it take to reimagine your business for a digitally-driven future?

“At JLR,  it means we’ve gone from moving metal to moving data,” says Liz Hodgson, Head of Finance, Data and Analytics. “When I joined we were a 20th century car manufacturing company. Now we’re a digitally focused company for the 21st century.”

Hear how Liz’s personal data transformation journey joined up with a digital renaissance at JLR, and why data fluency holds the key to supercharging your workforce. 

Trailblazing data transformation 

Liz Hodgson is the epitome of being the change you want to see for the future of finance.

In fact, she was so sold on the power of data transformation, she switched to a role dedicated to it. But her passion was born from frustrations that may sound all too familiar:  

“Frankly, before digital finance transformation, it was like being trapped in a hamster wheel! I had a large team trying to extract information from a staff ERP system, and I could never get the data over to the right people in time. And by the time I did get the data, we were back round to the next month in the cycle! We were always running backwards to go forwards.”

Cue a master plan to overhaul the way things once were, consolidating data to provide a single-version, self-serve system to access data analytics and insights:

“To say my world was transformed is a complete understatement."

"From then on I knew I wanted to fully commit to digital finance transformation moving forward. That’s how I ended up leading the data analytics function for JLR.”

So began the journey of bringing digital transformation and data literacy to the masses - no small feat for an organisation as big, broad and brilliant as JLR:

“Believe me, we have data hidden in cupboards across our organisation! It was a massive task to figure out how to get that data out and start using it as an asset. We had to ensure data was viewed in a new light by our workforce, as something to be used across an organisation rather than gatekept by one particular function.”  

The first step towards the making of this modern finance mindset is to take a hard, honest look at the skills your team are bringing to the table - or lack thereof. And be warned: so-called soft skills are far from a nice-to-have. According to Liz, data fluency depends on it:

“I’m really, really critical in this area. There’s a tendency to focus on the hard upskilling when it comes to finance technology, and whether people know the right buttons to press. But we’re not putting enough focus on softer skills such as ensuring people understand how new tools fit within end-to-end processes, beyond just making them function.”

However, Liz has learned from experience that the more digging you do into the data literacy strengths of your workforce, the more you might find surprising overlaps between teams:

“Within the finance function, it was hugely powerful when people understood that while they didn’t necessarily need the same skills as a data engineer to be a data analyst, some of their skill sets did overlap. Having those conversations builds confidence, creates a growth mindset, and helps the business to understand where the gaps are, and where you might be better equipped than you thought.”

Timing finance transformation to perfection

So, with your skills assessment complete, and the case for change made in full, what does it take to really move from the reality of today to the vision of the future?

According to Liz, it’s all in the timing:

“I’ve learned that timing the implementation of new finance technology is critical. If you land it too early, people are scrambling around to get to grips with it. If you land it too late, people forget the training you’ve given them altogether. Data fluency must be thought of in terms of the overall data journey of an organisation.”

Charting the timeline for change doesn’t mean only focusing on the present. It’s equally important to keep one eye on the past and one eye on the future:

“It’s true that finance needs to be moving much more into the future. But one of my big learnings for creating a data fluent workforce is to make sure to run your retros! You absolutely need to be assessing how far along you are in your journey towards your finance transformation goals.”

Keeping the past, present and future perfectly aligned in tandem is no easy task. That’s where an agile approach can help to ride out the highs and lows:

“Agility looks a lot like a snail! Start slow, start small, and build. I think that's true not just with every aspect of digital finance transformation, but particularly in terms of creating a data fluid workforce.”

Knowing that you don’t have to do it all alone is key to keeping a cool head through long periods of digital disruption. Liz is keen to stress that if she can do it, any finance professional can:

“I don’t even have a data and analytics background! Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learnt along the way. My top tip is to partner with people both internally and externally, whether that’s establishing strong relationships with external providers of software, or partnering with an internal digital team.

The latter has been a lifesaver - it’s like always having that friend who I can pick up the phone and speak to whenever I’ve needed help.”

Building communities for a digital-culture change

On the subject of needing someone to talk to, whether you’re tearing your hair out over tech difficulties, or itching to share a fresh idea, having a community around digital change to share the ups and downs with is key to keeping people connected throughout any transformation process, according to Liz.

At JLR, that looks like both organisation-wide and finance-specific Tableau champions networks, in addition to a data engineering guild:

“These networks bring people together who are on a similar growth journey and having similar problems. I ask everyone to share their recent successes in my Monday morning team meetings. It’s about creating that virtuous circle of the organisation becoming increasingly skilled - investment starts to come through when people actually talk to each other!”

After all, as the saying goes, culture eats strategy for business, so getting a data flowing workforce in motion requires amplifying it across your business and sharing the progress you’re making with one another.

And if you fancy yourself as a digital superstar, at JLR there’s always Finance Has Got Talent!

“Finance Has Got Talent is into its third year now! It’s for individuals or groups to come and share the great work that they've been doing. One of the most consistent things I hear is people sharing how data has totally transformed their world. Things like this are amazing for increasing the profile of digital transformation in finance.”

It’s all about boosting the reputation of data transformation and giving it a good name to get others onboard:

“Change is hard! And change in a digital data space is even harder."

"We all go through personal journeys of change, but it’s necessary for the organisation and for individual functions to adapt to the inevitable tide of what’s coming next.”

As one wise Jedi master once said - always in motion is the future. 

Click here to access the Academy 2023 replays to dive deeper into Liz's transformation journey!


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Olivia Wing, Customer Success Manager, GENCFO

Olivia is an author at GENCFO as well as being the Community Success Manager. Read her articles on everything from events, agility, hot topics in finance and interviews with key finance and accounting industry figures.

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