Premal Desai, The Gym Group’s Head of Data and AI, shares how the pandemic has reshaped his views around the mix of data and analytics skills an enterprise needs to be resilient in times of crisis
Gyms have been among the hardest hit businesses through the pandemic. Factors such as on-and-off lockdowns and social distancing have tested businesses and left them with valuable lessons. During this time, Premal Desai, Head of Data and AI at The Gym Group, credits the company’s ability to harness the power of data with helping it to navigate this uncertain environment.
“[When the pandemic struck] we focused on predicting things,” Desai says. “There was a lot of planning needed around things such as capacity and space utilization while maintaining health and safety standards. It became important to take care of our members using our data.”
“The fact that we were able to respond and maintain some agility proved the case that there is value in data infrastructure governance”Premal Desai, Head of Data and AI, The Gym Group
“There were some things that needed us to dig deep into our data landscape and there were things where we were lucky enough to have the info readily to hand,” he recalls. “This can be credited to both luck and skill. But the fact that we were able to respond and maintain some agility proved the case that there is value in data infrastructure governance.”
While working with the data helped The Gym Group navigate 2021’s tough business climate, Desai says that the need for agile team members and data literate colleagues during this time cannot be understated.
Ahead of Corinium’s upcoming CDAO UK 2022 conference, he shares how the past 24 months have reshaped his views about data team skills and enterprise data literacy.
Building More Resilient Data Teams
Desai says the pandemic has given him greater clarity around what qualities to look for in team members and about the value of frontline employees in feeding the data pipeline.
Data teams are generally used to operating in stable environments. But he argues that COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of equipping data staff with the skills to deliver results during times of disruption.
“Clearly, you need to be ready for a topsy-turvy environment, too,” he says. “There are people who can handle that challenge, and those who can’t. This adds to the challenge of selecting new talent because you need people who can deal with ambiguity and remain flexible. These soft skills are proving to be almost as important as having the core skills of a data analyst or a data scientist.”
“These soft skills are proving to be almost as important as having the core skills of a data analyst or a data scientist”Premal Desai, Head of Data and AI, The Gym Group
The role of soft skills in the data industry is a hot topic, with many companies struggling to find staff with the right mix of technical and soft skills.
While business methodologies such as Agile can get team members into the habit of delivering value iteratively and reassessing their priorities on a regular basis, these practices must typically be learned ‘on the job’.
Desai concludes: “We’ve done well in retaining talent but finding it is a bit difficult. It’s going to be interesting finding those people who can deal with ambiguity and remain flexible.”
A Renewed Focus on Data Literacy
For Desai, data truly comes into its own when it’s combined with the context that comes from the experiences of frontline staff.
“Getting that human perspective and then marrying that with the data – it’s really the Holy Grail,” he says. “As a business, we’re merging those as much as possible.”
“I look after the data and the science but also lean across and find out what’s happening on the floor,” he continues. “The data gives you one perspective, but it’s not always the full perspective. Joining those two things together gives us a more holistic view of the organization.”
Of course, doing this correctly requires a certain level of analytical skills. This feeds into the need for data literacy within The Gym Group – something Desai says will only grow in importance over the coming year.
“Getting that human perspective and then marrying that with the data – it’s really the Holy Grail”Premal Desai, Head of Data and AI, The Gym Group
“I’d love to focus more on data literacy,” he notes. “It’s something I’m passionate about; bringing different parts of the organization up to speed and convincing others that there’s value in literacy. It means creating an organizational standard of how to use data and thus enable people to do better jobs, enabled by data.”
Much like retraining data staff to work more flexibly, expanding the pool of people with the skills to improve their decision-making with data has the potential to make enterprises more resilient in times of crisis.
COVID-19 has highlighted both the value of data and the virtue of adaptability for companies across the UK. Leaders who wish to futureproof their organizations against future market disruptions should take steps to embed both into the culture of their businesses.