Guild Contributor:

Samir Patel, BAE Systems

Samir Patel, BAE Systems

Head of Data, BAE Systems

We’ve set ourselves a vision where data is something for everybody in the organisation, all 90,000 people across the world. And that means getting every single one of them engaged.


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Laura Bineviciute, Head of Community, Data Leaders

Samir Patel, Head of Data, BAE Systems

Laura Bineviciute: Today, I’m joined by Samir Patel, Head of Data at BAE Systems. Hi, Samir.

Samir Patel: Hi, Laura.

Laura Bineviciute: It’s really nice having you here and chatting about data and what BAE Systems is doing when it comes to engaging people on the data side. So perhaps tell me a little bit more about where, what her role is and what does data mean at BAE Systems?

Samir Patel: Like many organisations, we’ve grown up with data in local silos within individual programmes, regions and so forth. And we’re on a transformation to change that, so that we can exploit data at global scale to reflect our organisation. And that comes with all the challenges of different governance, different standards, different systems being used and how do we gradually bring those things together in order to enable the business to stop worrying about how to bring data together, but to focus on how to exploit it, the opportunities, to us, our business and customers.

Laura Bineviciute: I guess that’s a journey that so many companies are on, especially the ones that have been around for as long as BAE Systems have been. What is the role that you play in that transformation as Head of Data?

Samir Patel: So my role is around how do we make that easy for people across the organisation? How do we encourage, inspire them to develop their own use cases, identify opportunities either to improve existing business processes or for new ways of working and create an environment where we expect good quality data to be available, the tooling that they need to do that is available kind of off-the-shelf in the IT catalogues so they don’t have to be data experts, they don’t have to be it experts in order to exploit that and build the opportunities that we all know in this community are available.

Laura Bineviciute: That is so interesting how you put that at the beginning, to make it easy for people to get into the data transformation. I think it’s a very nice way of marketing, essentially what you do, and I think it’s almost a tool in that answer that other people can use for their benefit as well. When we look at how much the data space is transforming and how much is changing, what do you feel presents the biggest opportunity for data leaders in the next year or so?

Samir Patel: We’re still collectively coming off the hype that was ChatGPT which attracted a lot of people to the opportunities that were there, because they suddenly saw something that was real. Within the data community, there’s nothing new there in terms of the techniques, the technology. Artificial intelligence has been around for 30 years or more, but it’s crossed into mainstream, and that means that all companies will have interest and excitement amongst stakeholders across the business, senior leaders, main boards, shareholders and so forth. And there’s an opportunity there to tap into that environment. We’ve got to exploit it, demonstrate value, not just spend money on shiny new use cases, but things that genuinely add value to the business.

At the same time, use the opportunity to build more of those foundations, the things that we know and care about within the data community, but your CFO really isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of how this works. They just need it to work.

Laura Bineviciute: And it is interesting how various data leaders understand and live by that, to various degrees. And I think definitely through several conversations that we’ve had over the years and through our events, it’s clear that the tendency for many is exactly the direction that you’re going. So we’ve agreed to talk a little bit more about what a data engaged organisation is and how to get there. I guess your role is very closely linked to this activity at BAE, but more specifically, tell me, what is data engaged definition at your organisation and what have been some of the efforts that you’ve seen work over time?

Samir Patel: We’ve set ourselves a vision where data is something for everybody in the organisation, all 90,000 people across the world. And that means getting every single one of them engaged. And there are enthusiasts in there, there are people who are just who will take any opportunity you give to them, there are people for whom that’s a harder journey. They’re either reticent to get involved in data, they don’t have the confidence and skills to exploit data to the best opportunity. We have people who don’t necessarily sit with a computer on a daily basis.

How do we give them access to the data that they can use to improve the way they work? And I used the word confidence earlier, and I think that’s really important for that community, is how do we give them the confidence that they do know how to use data? We can very easily wrap it up in myths and legends and complex terminology that makes it something that most people will see, is something that the data team do, the specialists over there somewhere who do that data magic.

And we need to break that down. We need to make it easy for people to understand how to get hold of the data they need, what they can do with it, how to use it appropriately and make them feel empowered to do so.

Laura Bineviciute: It’s interesting how, in fact, people who fear anything, and in this conversation, if they fear that they don’t really understand, they, of course, will never feel confident to engage with it, let alone just go ahead and use it full time.

Samir Patel: Absolutely and we have to work our way through and we have to bring everybody on that journey and some will need more encouragement, they’ll need more training, they’ll need the coaching opportunities. How do we put all of that in place for everyone in a way that’s meaningful to them in their roles?

Laura Bineviciute: And have you seen some of little wins, little examples where you felt that your approach is validated by how you see people change, how they behave?

Everyone has that point where they suddenly realise what the opportunity is. You can show them all sorts of different things that are possible, that have been done and everyone nods and says, oh, yeah, that’s great, and so forth, and they will have some moment where they think, oh, well, if we could do that, then this works and that becomes better. And that’s what we’ve got to find, that moment that tips people from something that happens somewhere and is complicated to something that will make a real difference to them in a day-to-day business environment.

Laura Bineviciute: And how do you identify what will make it make the difference in their specific case? Because you need to get very close to understanding what each and every department and almost individual does to be able to make a difference in their specific role.

Samir Patel: Working with local champions, the enthusiasts, the people who want to drive change in their area, there is no way one person in an organisation of our size can hope to understand what’s going to make a difference to everybody in what they do across the organisation. And we shouldn’t try and genericize it either, because we find ourselves talking about sat navs and everybody already knows about that, and they don’t think of that as a data opportunity as much as the technology there is brilliant. We need to make it real to them, and that’s working with their peers, their colleagues, their friends, the people they recognise from their part of the business to showcase what can be done.

Laura Bineviciute: It sounds like a huge undertaking to go on this journey, and by all means, it exactly sounds the right direction as well. Do you have someone purely dedicated in your team to take this initiative forward? Or how do you split this role that is not necessarily just data, because a lot of it is about communication and community creation and community navigation.

Samir Patel: It is. It’s about community. It is. It is huge, as is any change across a large organisation. There’s a lot of people to reach. Yes, I have one person who’s full time on that sort of focus, but one person still can’t do that on his own. It needs a team, and that’s a coalition across the organisation. So we’re building that together, using us, we have a training academy, we have communications involved, but those champions and change agents I talked about as well – it’s about how can we build a network of community across the organisation to drive this forward?

Laura Bineviciute: Very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. And I think it’s valuable for people listening as well. To kind of come to the close of our conversation, when it comes to Guild 2024, which you’re joining this year, why do you feel it’s important to get together with fellow data leaders, with fellow CDOs and discuss over a couple of days the challenges and opportunities that arise in the area?

Samir Patel: Essentially none of the challenges that we face are genuinely unique to us as an organisation. The principles are the same. We’ve talked about how do you engage employees across the organisation. I will be surprised if there is anybody at Guild who is of a view that we know we need to keep data locked away into a team. So we can share what are the challenges, what are the solutions we’ve found. Let’s find the things that are working, things that we can use and share them, and also find things that haven’t worked and save ourselves the time and effort of failing again. Let’s see what we can do and from previous skills, talking to people who do all want to share on that journey.

Laura Bineviciute: That’s very true with what we’ve seen over the years as how open people are in that type of environment and it’s been very humbling in a way, as well. The very final question doesn’t come from me or from us as Data Leaders. It comes from a fellow data leader, George Papadatos from Syngenta, who is asking, without knowing, this question will end with you. What is one thing you want to do for your own development this year?

Samir Patel: I want to continue to look broader. It becomes really easy to look internally, look in a silo, look in our own world, and how do we look outside to broader data communities and also outside of community? What can we learn? What can I learn, what can I do differently, better and more effectively to elicit change in an organisation?

Laura Bineviciute: Thank you so much, Samir, lovely to chat with you. Thank you for your insights and we will see you at Guild this June.

Samir Patel: Thank you, Laura, and we’ll see you at Guild.

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