Data Changemakers 5: Aaron Butcher, Group Head of IT, Survitec Group

by Guy Bradshaw on 9th January 2018

The Data Changemakers series is a set of interviews and interactions with people who have spent their careers working in or around data and data management initiatives. They have a vision for the data journey and we want to understand what they have learnt and how that drives what they do today. What are their war stories and what advice can they give others embarking on the journey?

Aaron Butcher Survitec

Aaron Butcher is Group Director of IT at Survitec Group. He has been working in the IT industry for over 12 years, and is currently taking on a new challenge at Survitec in charge of the group IT function. A challenging mission of guiding the business through a huge amount of change and transformation.

Please describe a little about your own background and how you ended up working with data?

You could say I fell into IT. At school I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took a GNVQ in IT which gave me a broad exposure to data and its usage. I decided to go to work before deciding on a University course and got a job in IT support for a local businesses. Thereafter I moved into an in-house role for support and infrastructure and then my next move was to become an IT manager looking after all data and systems.

“What really drove home the importance of data was when we started on a large ERP programme to reduce 9 systems to 1. Controlling data caused some of the biggest challenges”

These included:

  1. Some data did not exist
  2. Some data was embedded in systems and was very outdated
  3. We did nothing to tidy the data or create any master data prior to starting migration
  4. We moved a lot of open transactions over to the new system, then had months of data problems as it was not cleansed or governed in advance.

We had completed moving 6 systems over when we began a master data management project with a Business Intelligence focus. We tried to put good governance in place and gave responsibility to different data sets to the most closely associated business owner e.g. the Head of Procurement or Head of Sales.

We also updated the customer registration process to ensure we had consistency from the beginning. We also put in place KPIs on the data to measure how accurate it was. We had just consolidated all the systems together when I moved to Survitec.

Would you say that you are a business person or a technical person or something else?

“I genuinely believe that your role as an IT Manager or Director is to bridge the gap between IT and the business. I don’t see them as separate – IT is part of the business and here to support the business.”

I have never felt that the purely technical approach was how I wanted to address things. However the perception seems to be that that is how it will be done. I have always had a commercial interest in general and that has helped me to do a better job by NOT going into unnecessary technical detail.

What is your current role and its main responsibilities as they relate to data?

I am the Group IT Director so I own group-wide IT Strategy. This includes being a member of the executive team helping to pull together our change programme. We are going through a large business transformation process so the whole executive team is engaged in that.

“Data is absolutely fundamental to our IT strategy. We have four components and data is one of those in its own right.”

What has been the most challenging data-related project you have worked on and why? What was your role in it and was the project a success and why?

There are two that spring to mind – the original one I mentioned earlier was challenging, although probably only with hindsight. At the time we just dealt with things as they came up, it was only afterwards we realised how it could have been easier. I would say that it was successful because we had issues but we got to the root cause of them and figured out how to fix them.

For example, our BI reports were incorrect because of data; our projects were less successful because of the data.

To get things up and running properly was challenging but we got a long way towards fixing it – I’d love to go back and find out how it is going!

The second challenging one is what we are doing now. This is due to a number of factors including:

– The lack of maturity in some of the business processes as they relate to data.

– The global spread of our business

– The large number of systems and processes

– The variety of data types including customer, supplier, product, people

– And of course, regulations like GDPR.

What did you learn from the experience?

I definitely learned that we would have got further in the first project if we had had better stakeholder management and sponsorship from the top level.

“If your executive team don’t realise the value of data management then it is going to be difficult for you to progress.”

Other than that, successful data projects are similar to any project – they include having defined project goals; stakeholder engagement; sponsorship etc.

I think it seems more complex because in software and hardware projects it can be easier to define your goals and objectives than with data projects. It is even more important to have that scope defined though, and agree markers for success otherwise you won’t know what you are aiming for.

The other aspect of it is that data projects tend to cross-over with routine tasks that become business as usual. So how do you agree where the project ends and where the routine tasks begin? It is tricky because it is about changing behaviour.

“People management is always the piece that has the most potential to go wrong – it’s the whole people and process plus technology that you have to remember.”

What do you think are the key trends in data management today and how do you think it will change the way we all do business?

Data value is an interesting thing. There is a lot happening with cyber-security and technology at the moment. The idea of data as an asset is increasingly important and businesses are starting to understand that – I think this trend will increase.

I was reading about the Uber breach recently. Technology companies are more advanced than those in other sectors like manufacturing, and are therefore likely to be bigger targets. However it is still worrying for the rest of us that with all their advanced knowledge and systems, even they can’t keep their data safe.

“Investment in data security for us and others is huge right now. Data management is even more important because of things like Cloud and multiple devices that can allow access everywhere. These increase our vulnerability.”

Regulation is another part of this. All businesses are seeing increased regulation. It started with some of the more mature industries like electricians and gas engineers and the trend continues.

“It is interesting that very few of us would use a non-gas regulated person to fit our cooker but we rarely stop to question the qualifications of a person in a shop who is accessing our computer or phone for us.” 

What is your view on staffing and whether to use in-house or external resources for data management?

Keep the core elements in-house. Outsource commodity or very specialist skills but core items should be kept in-house including data management. We have a chart with it all defined as part of a fully articulated IT strategy document so we know exactly what we are doing in each area.

We will not outsource any key processes – such as business process management or data stewardship but we would outsource commodity items like technical development or writing application code.

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a large data-related project today?

Have a good business case so you understand the potential benefits at the beginning.

Get some expert support.

Have clearly defined objectives.

Get executive sponsorship and business buy-in.

Take care of stakeholder engagement.

Are there any particular skills or qualifications you consider to be vital to your success?

A good business understanding and knowledge. Also good project management and governance skills are really important.

What are you best known for outside of work?

My wife and I have a habit of taking on wrecks of houses and doing them up. We also enjoy travelling and socialising. My most recent trip was great – we took in Iceland, New York and Toronto.

Describe yourself in 3 words

Driven, Focused, Passionate