Driving Long-Term Business Value through Data-Driven Culture at Ulta Beauty

Peer Practices
Written by Amanda Baldwin

Krish Das

VP, Enterprise Data Officer

Ulta Beauty

Cultivating a data-driven culture has been a top priority for data leaders for years, and according to Evanta, a Gartner Company’s, annual CDAO Leadership Perspective Survey, it is their #2 priority for 2023. Chief Data Officers (CDOs) and Chief Data and Analytics Officers (CDAOs) say they are striving to develop a data-driven culture that improves decision making, business outcomes and delivers true value for their businesses; however, many are struggling to break through current company culture and encourage adoption.

Krish Das, VP, Enterprise Data Officer at Ulta Beauty and Governing Body Member of the Atlanta CDAO Community, has extensive experience building data cultures to drive long-term business value. Since January 2022, he has been focused on making data a strategic asset at Ulta Beauty, and prior to this role, he spent a decade leading data and technology teams in the banking and retail industries.

Once the organization really starts to get into the data, you can literally look at all functions of the business to drive value.”

Here, Krish shares insight into Ulta Beauty's cultural transformation along with key aspects of his strategy and execution.

Show the Business the Value of a Data-Driven Culture

When Krish first arrived at Ulta Beauty, there was very little trust in the data, and it was not spoken about at the executive level. Their data quality was questionable, fragmented, and they “were not harnessing the power of data in a way that [they] should have.” 

Today, data is one of three strategic initiatives at Ulta Beauty, and they have executive sponsorship across their Chief Operating Officer, Chief Digital Officer and Chief Information Technology Officer. It took some time, but the business now understands the value of data from both a customer and associate perspective.

How do you serve your customers better? How do you operate more efficiently? How are you responding to risk and compliance needs? How are you monetizing your data? These aspects come into play once you get to your data-driven culture.”

Regarding customers, Krish specified, “You need to know your customers really well. What their purchase pattern is, what they like, what don't they like, what their feedback is… We can start to gain deeper insights into the customer and that can help you market your product much better and provide a much better, more customized customer experience.” 

For associates, Krish explained that the business now sees a “huge operational efficiency gain opportunity” for employees across Ulta Beauty’s 1350+ retail stores, numerous distribution centers and corporate offices. Marketing is often the first department to see the value from data, but they are making a concerted effort to “spread the wealth” across the organization. He said, “A true data-driven organization should spread across all facets of the organization.”

Spark “Buzz” and “Momentum” on the Change Journey

When Krish joined the business, his team began building a solid data foundation on google cloud while delivering specific business use cases. They launched their foundational initiative, named “DARWIN”, to ensure quality data is available at the right time with the right frequencies and that the business can access the data in a self-service model. 

“DARWIN” is a long-term transformational journey, and to ensure success of the program, Krish discussed how it was critical they launch a change management strategy in parallel. Krish calls his strategy a “push and pull” approach. He stated, “In any meeting when you push the information out, only 60% get absorbed, if at all. But when there's a pull, you have a lot more success in terms of absorption or appreciation of that information. This is something very similar.” 

The “push” involves providing necessary communications along with both mandatory and advanced training for each user tier. The “pull” creates opportunities to generate “buzz” and “get the energy going” to improve visibility and get employees onboard. With right executive sponsorship, data has become a frequent discussion topic at All Hands meetings, company town halls and on their internal website.

To motivate users on a granular level, Krish’s team created a weekly forum for cross-functional business collaboration. He explained, “Functional areas from merchandising, supply chain, finance, store operation, loss prevention and marketing along with the data team come together in a single cohesive format, and we encourage the teams to share what they're doing with their data, what they’ve built, how they're getting value, and oftentimes, they have questions… It's kind of like peer coaching, collaboration, training and teaching all in one.”

Ulta Beauty has been seeing real success from this strategy, and Krish said, “I would absolutely attribute our journey so far to this kind of framework.”

Roadblocks to Continued Success

Both “DARWIN” and the change management program are still active today, and they are expected to continue to help with the growth of strategic analytics across the organization. With that said, Krish anticipates they will encounter obstacles in the future, specifically with resiliency and sustainability, and he is proactively thinking about how to address them.

Based on past experiences, he detailed how data journeys are often cyclical, starting with a level of skepticism, then the business sees value, and then it spreads like wildfire to a point where it can be difficult to acquire the funding and support to keep up with expectations.

In terms of support, Krish expressed how the limited talent pool is an ongoing issue impacting sustainability and scale. He said, “You need that business knowledge, institutional knowledge of the inner workings of an organization, mixed with the technology skills that are needed to form a solid team, and that balance is very hard to find.”

Measure Effectiveness of a Data-Driven Culture

As their data culture matures, they continue to evolve how they measure the success of their programs. As a starting point, Krish shared a few basic criteria to measure efficiency:

  • Self-service usage versus data team involvement
  • If the business is making better everyday decisions, faster by extracting deeper insights from data 
  • Data being used for organization’s strategic decision making
  • Data literacy (i.e., How many people have taken training, and can speak to them)

He added, “These are around the experience, the awareness and the willingness to use the organization’s data to the best of their advantage. If you can measure those, I think that gives a pretty good idea from the quantitative perspective.”

What’s Next for Ulta Beauty 

Krish mentioned that their programs are going well, and he sees a lot of excitement across the organization. As a next step, they are working towards true democratization of the data.

He said, “We are getting the foundation in place, we have all the right pieces of the puzzle working together, and I want to see self-service capabilities catch on to the fullest extent.” Furthermore, they are exploring how to gain deeper insight from machine learning and generative AI, with a goal of expanding capabilities across the organization in the future.

Evanta’s CDAO Communities connect data and analytics leaders from the world's leading organizations to discuss critical issues impacting their role today. Apply to join your local CDAO community and take a look at the calendar to see when your CDAO community is gathering next.

Special thanks to Krish Das and Ulta Beauty.

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