What is your vision regarding the development and growth of our data expertise?
Roel: People who enjoy working with data topics and are familiar with statistics, cloud computing and programming are not just there for the taking, unfortunately. We therefore adopt the view that, given proper guidance and the necessary drive, anyone can become a data consultant. Personally, although I have a background in social sciences, I've been able to program since I was a child. My whole AI story started when I clicked on an advertisement on Facebook that led to a year of online training. My personal experience of this atypical process is therefore a good argument for applying this approach. You see the same thing in the data science community: people who excel are often generalists, not specialists. It is these people who have the broad knowledge required to transform data products into something valuable.
Senne: I can definitely agree with what Roel is saying. I trained in economics with a data specialisation, but that didn't mean it was plug and play for me right away. Data is a broad term with various different focus points. I had a good initial basis for The Reference, but especially the right soft skills.
Roel: I often come into contact with consultants from other companies and find it remarkable that the role of soft skills is seriously underestimated in the area of data consultancy.
Senne: We therefore try to focus on T-shaped skills, where every data consultant is a generalist in different domains but excels in one field of expertise. To achieve this, we are given the necessary support and the opportunity to take training courses. We then share the knowledge from these courses and workshops with each other, which also ensures that we can turn to each other with questions or if we want a second opinion.
The Reference uses the term 'data consultant' without distinguishing between the various sub-domains (data scientist, analyst etc.). Why is this?
Roel: Belgium is not a particularly large country, and many data applications gain their strength from the scale on which they are rolled out. A lead scoring model is therefore much more profitable in large countries. I think this is one of the reasons why professional Belgium often lacks the necessary maturity when it comes to data. Many people really have no idea of the difference between a data analyst, data scientist, data engineer or BI developer etc. And this is logical, because often they aren't really all that familiar with data. This is precisely why we profile ourselves as data consultants. As experts, we can often quickly identify the actual needs and present the correct profile(s) accordingly. There is nothing to stop us from refining this distinction and making it more explicit in the future. I like to compare this situation with that of our online marketing department. A few years ago, we just had online marketing specialists. Now we have SEM marketers, content marketers, web analysts, social media specialists and so on. The same evolution also applies to data.
Senne: We not only play a technical role, but also help to answer specific business questions. And we also try to offer further added value by means of our insights, in addition to the initial query. This is what the term ‘data consultant' comprises.
The hybrid model, which combines a junior and a senior data consultant, is an approach that The Reference has implemented since its inception. Why this approach?
Roel: Mentoring creates a win-win-win situation. If you put fresh talent with experienced consultants, the resulting synergy ensures that juniors quickly get to know the ropes and learn how to become consultants. This allows companies to bring in consultants with a minimum of experience, without sacrificing flexibility. And the aim of The Reference is to make its clients happy.
Senne: I was able to experience this in practice. As a starter, I was immediately taken by the hand and learned about data at an incredibly fast pace, from major insights to minor techniques that could be applied in practice. This was really where the added value lay for me. It's a skill in itself to express expertise in practice. And that neatly brings you back to being a consultant which, alongside acquiring the right knowledge, also involves tugging on the right sleeves and conveying the information and advice correctly and clearly. Mentoring is a valuable and critical sounding board too, which also makes the process very fast. You support each other and lift each other to a higher level.
Working as a data consultant at the client's location or at our agency, what works best?
Roel: So far, I've never once gone to a client's location and found a laptop ready and waiting with access to all the necessary data sources. On the contrary, during the first few weeks, the focus often lies more on a policy-related and administrative struggle to gain access to all the necessary data sources and software. This is why getting started on site at the client's premises is the best approach. It will only be possible to make the most of many insights and models if they are supported by the entire organisation. Evangelism isn't something you can do remotely from your chair.
How do you think that an external consultant offers added value within a company?
Senne: We can often work more objectively. Although we are close to the client, we are not part of the organisation so the sticking points often become clear to us quite quickly. I feel that we can report more objectively as we find it easier to identify the sticking points and can facilitate decisions with a clear focus on the project. And when you are working with data, ethics and objectivity are very important. There must be absolutely no data tweaking to highlight certain things that serve a hidden agenda. We also have experience of multiple sectors and environments, allowing us to implement best practices and think across sectors. We will be able to identify certain things more easily and offer alternative solutions, precisely because of our different experiences.
Roel: As a consultant myself, I often come into contact with consultants from other companies. And as I mentioned earlier, I have noticed that – as far as data is concerned – the role of soft skills is seriously underestimated. In my view, external consultants should use their privileged 'independent' position to break through the existing silos and hierarchy within a company and to position themselves above the established processes and dynamics within an organisation. In the beginning, this means less analysis and less programming. Internally, we sometimes call this 'data science with a baseball bat', because hitting the same ball hard will often get you further than hitting it with your book of statistics. This is often no easy task, although it offers huge long-term value for the client.
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