Catherine Brien, Data Science Director
As Data Science Director, Catherine Brien is on a mission to make data one of Co-op’s most powerful assets so we can give back more to our members and customers. She talks to Rachel Machin about using data for good.

The Cambridge English Dictionary describes data as: ‘information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be examined and considered and used to help decision-making’.

How important it is to have data to help our leaders make decisions is something Catherine talks about a lot when we chat.

“We need to get to a place where everything that the business does is as data-driven and data-inspired as it possibly can be. That doesn’t belittle the role of experienced judgement though,” she insists.

“Co-op leaders making decisions should be able to get the best outcomes by combining their experience and judgement with the knowledge, the facts and numbers to support them.”

Numbers nerd

Facts and numbers are Catherine’s reason for being. As a self-confessed word nerd, I’m sitting opposite a woman who’s my antithesis. Someone who “gravitated towards maths and science” as a child, bagged a degree in maths at Cambridge University, and is motivated by solving problems.

“I could never do any subject where you’re required to remember. I was fascinated by history but there were too many facts to remember,” she laughs. “I’ve always followed a path of serendipity and have realised the best choices I’ve made in my life are the things I’ve done on impulse.”

Catherine Brien, Data Science Director

The value of data

When Catherine joined the Co-op in July 2016 she admits she was pleasantly surprised about how much of a pull there was for better data across the business.

I’d half expected I’d need to sell in the idea but that wasn’t the case at all,” she says.

So how did she find the state of our data when she first arrived?

“I spent my first couple of months trying to understand the lay of the land here. Yes it was messy but no worse than I was anticipating, and nothing that I haven’t seen in other businesses.

“One of the challenges here is there is simply so much opportunity – how do we prioritise? I feel as though I’m permanently saying no to people on the phone but unfortunately we can’t do everything. That’s genuinely a frustration,” she admits.

Catherine’s ambitions for Co-op data

  • Better business outcomes – because colleagues have the data they need to make informed decisions.
  • Serving our members – because we understand their needs, and can create new opportunities.
  • One version of the truth – be confident in the data we have – it needs to be accurate and trustworthy.
  • Accessible to everyone – everyone needs data / insight that’s simple, quick to find, useful and presented in a format they understand.
  • #TheCoopWay – using data in the right way that supports our Co-op values.

Why our goal is more than GDPR

In May 2018 new regulations will be introduced around data protection. They aim to give back control to individuals over how their personal data is used. So what does this mean for businesses, particularly ours?

GDPR is huge for any organisation. The maximum fine if you’re not legally compliant is 4% of revenue. If there’s a breach in one area of the business, it will affect the whole Group. We’re also asking ourselves tougher questions – is it the Co-op Way?

“So we’ve got a working group set up at the moment looking at how to build understanding and engagement with customers and members around their rights, and how their data is used. And we’re thinking about what should our policies be around selling data, sharing data beyond the minimum legal requirement?

“I’m being quite shameless in treating GDPR as an opportunity,” Catherine admits. “If you trace back and say: ‘to be compliant with regulation, what does that mean for ways of working and processes?’ Actually those are exactly the same building blocks that will help us make our data a lot more valuable.”

Data that does good

Catherine and her team have been looking at how our Co-op values like self-help, self-responsibility, solidarity, equity show themselves in data, and how our approaches to using it must be ethical and fit with our Co-op difference.

“A lot of work has been going on with the Community team so they have the insight to support the communities we serve in the best way. We’ve also made our first step into open publishing by sharing data on the money we’ve given to local causes through our Local Community Fund.”

How long will it take to get there?

The journey will never end,” admits Catherine. “Any organisation that is genuinely data-led is one that has a culture of learning, a culture of curiosity and will therefore always be a little bit insecure and will always be thinking ‘there’s another opportunity over here’.”

“That said we’ve given ourselves a two-year time horizon to get the big building blocks in place.”

So what would Catherine like people to be saying about the Co-op and data in two-year’s time?

“Number one: we stand out from the crowd because we’re trusted with data, two: we’re continuing to offer new products and services to our members, three: colleagues feel that data and insight has made a real difference to our performance. And four: we’re known as an employer of choice for data professionals.”

Quick-fire questions

Favourite Co-op own-brand product: Irresistible pizzas – they’re my staple when anyone comes round at short notice.

In three words, Co-op culture you’d like to see: Co-operative, respectful, ambitious – it’s what we say we are now but we’re not quite there yet.

Top priority in the next couple of years: Every leader to feel they’ve got the data / insight they need at their fingertips.  So making better decisions is easier.

One bit advice you’d give to your fellow leaders: Myself included, we’re all trying to do too much. We all need to focus.

Difficult moment: Realising that I’d come in with a big responsibility but don’t have direct managerial control of most of the levers that need to be pulled so needed to take more of an influencing approach.

Proudest moment:  Building the team – we’re adding new skills which are essential, and we’re creating a stronger community by linking the many data and analytical teams across the business.

Three words to describe me:  Geeky, friendly, impatient (sometimes).

Happiness is: My four year old son, my trustee work with a charity which provides access to affordable, high quality secondary education in Uganda and Zambia. I love the mountains – skiing, walking – if I don’t get a regular fix of hiking in the Lake District I go stir crazy.

Personal ambitions: To clone myself so I could have different versions of me living different lives. One version of me would be an explorer, another a musician, and another would do what I do now.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Where we can we find out more about the Group Data Sciences team and the work they do? There does not seem to be much information available on the Food intranet.

    • The Group Data Science team formally falls under Co-op Digital so information is published openly on the Digital Blog here

      This does cover more strategic things though rather than the day to day

    • Hi Dave,

      We’re currently in the process of updating our pages on the group intranet as the content is a little out of date, so there will be more information up there on data shortly. Otherwise you can keep an eye on the digital blog pages, where we share regular updates on our work, take a look at the digital wiki page or come to one of our show and tells – the next is on 10 January in Federation.


  2. Its great we are focusing on data as we move forward to be a member centric business again. What benefits will members and colleagues have seen due to our investment in this capability over the past two years?

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for your support!

      The work we have been doing in data underpins all of Co-op’s engagement with its members – for example we use the information to improve and personalise our offers. It also informs our community activity, and feeds into many of the commercial decisions we are making in each of our business units to benefit our customers and our performance – for example the teams in Food and Insurance use our data to improve pricing and propensity models respectively.

      Building our capabilities in data is still a work in progress, but it is helping to simplify systems, make processes faster and identify areas that will be high value for us as a business. We are very excited about the progress we have made – and will continue to make next year and beyond.


  3. A very interesting article.

    For information, the fine is in relation to Turnover and not Revenue.

    Under the GDPR, the ICO can impose up fines of up to 20 million Euros or 4% of group worldwide turnover (whichever is greater) against both data controllers and data processors.

    • Turnover and revenue are mostly considered to be the same thing.

      It’s right though that UK accounting and ICO docs use the term ‘turnover’.

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Co-op leaders, Digital