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Marks & Spencer launches ‘world first’ new data science and AI academy as it unlocks potential millions in value from data

M&S is now using data in areas from buying products to store operations. Image courtesy of M&S

Marks & Spencer says its new data science and AI academy marks a retail world-first – and will take it to the next level in harnessing the power of data.

The academy will train an initial 10 members of staff on a level seven data science and AI apprenticeship, in partnership with education provider Cambridge Spark. The move is part of a wider programme to upskill its team and put data at the heart of its decision-making – and one that M&S says will help it to unlock value potentially worth millions of pounds to the business. 

Suze Howse, head of enterprise data at M&S, says in a blogpost that the academy launch comes as M&S moves on from the ‘fixing the basics’ stage of a transformation programme that launched in 2018 and now has moved on to focus on shaping its future. 

“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,” says Howse. “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.” 

Now, she says, the retailer is taking another step forward by launching “a brand-new, highly sought-after, in-house level seven data science and 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 four data analyst programme – today begin their journey to level seven 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.”

How M&S uses data in its business

Howse says the opportunity for data science at M&S spans the full ‘plan’, ‘buy’, ‘move’, ‘sell’ retail value chain – from the beginning of the product design process to improved buying, allocation and then store operations and customer relationships. It uses personalisation algorithms to produce offers tailored to more than 13m members of its Sparks loyalty scheme. 

By being the first UK retailer to offer a level seven programme, M&S believes it will be able to both attract and retain digital talent, while encouraging more of its 70,000 members of staff to consider a career in data via three pathways within the business. 

M&S first launched a level four data analyst apprenticeship in 2018, and has since gone on to launch a level three data technician course, hiring Mehdi Hosseini as head of data science in order to oversee the growing team. More than three years later, more than 280 members of staff have gone through a data literacy programme. The retailer says data and insight, housed on its BEAM cloud data platform along with all its tools, analytics and reporting, is now at the centre of everything it does, from discounting to operating and evaluating in-store trials.

Marks & Spencer is an Elite retailer in RXUK Top500 research. 

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