Data Changemakers 9: Ross Simson, Managing Director, Insight Republic

by Steve Parry on 3rd May 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?

Ross Simson

Ross Simson has been Managing Director of a private consultancy for the last 15 years acting as a business consultant & interim director, with a wealth of experience across multiple industry sectors.  He specialises in a number of interconnected areas including sales and sales force automation (Telecoms), marketing and product development within the FMCG sector, Customer Insight and analytics across FMCG, local government and licence fee collection across, call centre field operations and web traffic. For the last two years he has specialised in MI transformation in the utilities sector.

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

I did Geography as a degree at Edinburgh Uni which included work on mapping and relational DBs and how to use computers in Banking. This got me interested in information and its usage. At the end of my degree I decided to take a Sales and Marketing role with Proctor and Gamble. This was based on my Dad’s advice (he was a Chief Accountant) which was:

“Understand that the critical thing about business is effective communication. You have to know how to sell and market an idea.”

So I went and learned how to sell nappies and soap powders etc to retailers and also learned about how important understanding customers is. How do their needs change? and how can you therefore help them to understand your product; its features; its benefits and why they should be motivated to buy it.

Some highlights of my early career in relation to data included:

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

“First and foremost, data underpins everything that business people do. You can’t run a   business without it. You have to drive from data to information to insight to action. This means you have to combine both things to be successful.” 

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

I am in my first few months as the Interim Head of Information at Thames Water. Thames Water wants to be a digital-first and data-driven business. As a consequence, we have to get insight from our data to allow managers to make better decisions based on fact, not just gut feel. That’s where data quality comes in and the need to help people decide what questions they are looking to answer.

“We have started by determining what the five questions are that the board is trying to answer in order to run the business. From that you can extrapolate, by quarter, what the deliverables are in terms of data and information”.

One of the biggest challenges I have seen companies wrestle with, is not the data but that the people don’t know what questions to ask. This is where the data analysis can really help – what the data tells us about what is really happening helps to fix the “Known Unknowns”.

Your experience includes many years helping companies gain insight from data.  What are the biggest data challenges you have seen companies wrestle with?

There are probably two examples I’d like to share here:

Birmingham City Council – This was a fascinating job largely because of the size of Birmingham Council’s remit – (it is the largest local authority in Europe) and the diversity and relative youth of the population. We started thinking about what was critical to us and narrowed our focus to 3 things: People, Place and Product:

“Who are they, where do they live and in what type of house and what products do they expect to consume from the council?

An example I will share is about recycling. The questions were what is our recycling rate and how can we improve it? This then turned into a series of other questions including:

 

We worked with Experian using over 100 data sets and ended up with 15 individual segments based on things like affluence, ethnicity and likelihood to want services. We also took 8,000 surveys from visitors to the city including businesses and tourists to back up what we found in the data. We talked to our Partners in recycling companies to look at what volume and types of recycling went through them.

Once we had gained insight on the size and shape of the data we needed to think about other questions. These included who do we want to communicate with? How? With which message? Via which channel eg bus routes, emails or leaflets?

We also had to think about locality – in buildings like flats with less communal space you get less recycling. If you use open bins you get less recycling because people don’t want others to know what they are eating, and in some cases, what they are drinking.

Through the data analysis we were able to discover what was needed to be done in order to increase recycling rates.

“It’s all about test and learn and fail quickly.”

TV Licensing – Another fascinating project. We took the approach which I call creating a Rubik’s Cube. People in general don’t understand data – they just want answers to questions. You create the “six faces of data” approach by looking at things like people, place, product and price. For example, if I want to understand about a customer in a certain place then I have to join the red and yellow sides of the cube together. It allowed us to focus on how to do data management because these became data families:

Who can’t pay, who can pay, who is deliberately not paying – this leads to very effective communication to these households”.

We worked with Steve Martin to change the way we communicated with these different data families by changing the wording of letters we sent. Based on analytics we could understand which letter got the best result and use that earlier in the process. By getting Steve to rewrite the letters and testing the impact our response rates went through the roof.

For example saying “other people in your street pay their TV license” using their specific street name. Or by mentioning court dates and fines earlier in the process.

“By understanding the psychology that the data had identified and creating moments of truth we were very successful because we targeted the different data families in different ways.”

Now, there is a database that knows exactly where people live so everyone does need a TV license.

How have you been able to help the organisations you work for?

I apply a number of different approaches depending on the problem.

One is something I borrowed from Keyrus. You have to think about the following 4 questions:

 

If you look at that in a Waterfall vs Agile way, it is about story gathering. For example when I was at Npower they had just received a £26m fine– for the volume of complaints they had. We therefore had to understand who complains and why? What are the stages of complaint? What is the full story?

The other model is about how to turn data into actionable insight. Traditional MI and BI are based on hindsight – descriptional analytics on what happened. However, managers want to think about foresight – predictive analytics. Eg Thames Water during the “Beast from the East” could not provide water to 20 000 people in London. So we now have to understand why that happened and take action to prevent it happening again.

“I focus on four stages: Descriptive, Reactive, Predictive, Proactive – what happened, why, what will happen, how can we make it happen. That’s how you change data to information to insight to action.”

What have you learned from your experiences?

We are building a data factory and a digital factory at Thames Water and using Scrum. I am now learning a new language at age 50 including terms like Product Owners; Story Writers; Data Wranglers and Visualisation Designers. This is a new culture and new way of working especially for a company like Thames that has been in business since 1640.

“In the past, with BI, you would gather requirements from a stakeholder, go back to them two months later and find that what you had generated was not quite what they wanted. Now we have people who are very good at communications and understanding and challenging in a positive way – our story writers – to determine what is the right question first.”

We can go away and within a week come back and ask “is this what you want the product to look like?” allowing you to fail fast. You can become very agile and burn through back-log very quickly and do product updates every 1-2 weeks – actually sitting with the business. This then enables the continuous improvement which everyone talks about but was never really done within BI.

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?

How do we bring data science together to achieve business value and meet our customer objectives? For example we have thousands of smart meters out there – we can identify what height the water is or whether there are leaves over manhole covers. How much rainfall is going into rivers that we need to extract, clean and get out to consumers.

The next step is to understand where are pipes leaking and dripping – are there empty properties which are using water – perhaps they are leaking? Who owns that leak and how can it be fixed? What is the consumption per household? We are trying to get people to use less water – how can we influence and put interventions in place based on the data we are collecting?

“We want to pre-emptively fix problems before they get more serious. We need to harness the best technology and people together to answer the questions accurately and quickly”.

This is one of the reasons I like the MSFT Azure platform because it allows us to bring data together and move from ETL to ELT using the power of the Cloud. Using Cloud we don’t have to worry about storage any more, we are not moving data but having call-outs using API’S.

There are steps to take to ingest data and clean it but the next thing to think about is how people want to use it. There are some people who just want data as a service, some want reports, dashboards, insights etc.

“We should be structuring to allow our internal customers to decide what they want. Do they want to ask the questions; do they want a team to manipulate the data or do they just want the answers?”

You are currently Co-Deputy of the Customer Data Council at the IDM – what does this involve?

As the IDM and DMA joined together it brought best advice and training in Marketing together. There are a number of councils, one of which is the data council where we have around 40 members from industry playing an active role in giving out best practice advice. James Morgan of Sainsburys is our chair and there are 4 key themes we want to focus on:  Talent, Best Practice, GDPR and Connected Technology focussing on how to create data led omni channel marketing strategies and helping wade through the myriad of tools and products.

One of the things we have been doing and that I am very passionate about is how to nurture talent for the future because there are not enough people of sufficient quality in the data industry. Creative Data Academy is an idea we have built with the IDM – there are 3 this year in London, Birmingham and Edinburgh – bringing together young people to learn all about data from experts, agencies, panels and others. There are also 6 one-day labs across the UK so we’ll have introduced 6-700 students from 20-25 universities to the concepts of data and data management and why they should have a look at it.

Another thing I’m doing is working with Eden Smith to nurture talent in a programme we launched at Big Data London to help Data Science Post-Graduates. We have partnered companies with students, via their universities, to help them do a 12-week placement as part of their dissertation. This helps universities compete for the best students and businesses to find up-and-coming talent.

“There are great opportunities in data science and graduates can move to considerable salaries within a few short years in a data science career. Those of us already in the industry have got to nurture that talent and also, since not everyone can become a data scientist, make students aware of the other roles in areas such as governance.”

How can we show them that they can become specialists or professionals in many different areas within the data sphere?

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

Have a clear end-point.

Do right-to-left thinking not left-to-right

Start small

Fail fast

Add incrementally

Get Senior level stakeholder endorsement

Ask the right questions at the beginning

Know how to measure success

“KPIS are just that – there should only be 10 not 100! Think about your data and question hierarchies – they should match. Ask yourself: What is the key performance metric and what are the 3 KPIs I need to manage in order to influence that metric?”

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

Being inquisitive, good communication skills, keep learning.

Is there a question you would have asked you today if you were interviewing Ross Simson?

I would pass on a piece of insight from Andy Day at Sainsburys. In your first 100 days in your new role talk to as many people in the business as you can and spend less time talking to companies who are trying to sell you things.

“Once you spend the time understanding how the business works and the pain points of your stakeholders ar,e you can then have a clear plan and delivery schedule which gains you credibility.”

What are you best known for or what do you like doing outside of your working life?

I guess I am best known for building strong data teams and transformational thinking around data.

Outside of my working life, at the moment I have (stupidly) agreed to put our garden into the Open Garden in June. I have a cottage garden at the front and it is zoned in the back where we have got an office, a veg patch, fruit trees in one bit and flowers and beds in other bits.  It has taken 4 years to transform and there are some challenges we are having around weather at the moment with the sub-zero temperatures.

“The other thing is that my wife and I have a passion for food – learning about new cuisines and new places and nice things to eat. We were in Barcelona for the weekend recently and eating tapas for three days was lovely!”