Marks and Spencer is to open an academy that aims to turn staff from every function in the business into data scientists able to make the retailer more digitally savvy.
Employees will be encouraged to enrol on an 18-month in-work data science skills programme, during which they will learn about machine learning and programming languages, such as R and Python.
M&S is the first publicly listed retailer in the UK to go down the path of creating a data skills academy.
The need to be digitally savvy is of particular concern in the retail market, where high street chains have been rocked by the convenience offered by online delivery from the likes of Amazon, Asos and Ocado.
The M&S plan is to create a new raft of data skilled leaders and data scientists to lead digital transformation across the depth and breadth of its business.
Embracing new technology is key to the British retailer’s survival, according to Steve Rowe, chief executive.
“We need to change their digital behaviours, mindsets and our culture to make the business fit for the digital age,” he said.
Teaching will be provided by Decoded, a London-based education business that specialises in teaching executives digital skills.
M&S expects to train more than 1,000 employees in the first 18 months of the academy’s operation, from board directors and members of the finance department to the buyers of new product lines and store managers.
Successful students will gain a data analytics qualification accredited by the British Computer Society and the training will be funded through the apprenticeship levy, a UK government scheme that forces companies to set aside an equivalent of 0.5 per cent of their payroll for staff training.
Data science is one the fastest growing specialisms in the business education market, encouraging many universities and business schools to add specialist degrees in the subject to their list of course offerings.
In the US, where applications for the traditional two-year MBA course have been declining for the past four years, masters degrees in data analytics are a growth market.
M&S senior executives will be put on a data leadership programme, aimed at giving them hands-on teaching with technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.
The aim will be to make the heads of M&S the most data-literate leadership team in retail, according to Kathryn Parsons, co-founder and joint chief executive of Decoded.
“This is a pioneering and inspiring commitment to life-long learning and future-facing skills,” she said. “Every leader in business today should take note.”