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Alan Walsh

Alan Walsh
Managing Partner Ensono Digital EU


On 21st October 2022, leaders from retail, hospitality, travel, IT, and manufacturing gathered in Manchester to discuss the ever-increasing importance of using data to make better, faster decisions in all areas of business.

From informing customer experience to determining operational strategies, data – determined, gathered, governed, and utilised properly – can give an insights-driven organisation the leading edge in an uncertain economy.

We heard from Michelle Beeson, Senior Analyst at Forrester, Ian Cowley, Head of Data at Ensono Digital, and – our keynote client – Darrell Spencer, CTO of Village Hotels – who shared his experience with the hotel and leisure chain’s ongoing journey towards data-led maturity.

Alan Walsh, Managing Partner Ensono Digital EU, hosted the event and here shares his overview of the challenge that faces every business going into 2023; how to build a data strategy that helps everyone in the organisation to make better, faster decisions.

Making data work at every level of your business, and using insights to drive efficiency and productivity, experience, and growth, is not the exclusive domain of the IT function, and it can’t be delivered through technology alone. Forrester – whose Senior Analyst Michelle Beeson kicked off the discussion by outlining key findings from their latest survey on data in business – measures an organisation’s digital maturity across several areas including strategy, culture, talent and, of course, technology. Forrester has found that1 – against these measures – just 7% of insights-driven businesses can be classified as advanced. For the 93% of data-informed businesses still on the journey to maturity, challenges to overcome include not only the thought leadership required to design the data and insights strategy, but also the ongoing tasks of ensuring data quality and governance, investing in data resources and talent, and driving data engagement across their organisations. The prize is significant though, with these advanced level firms being eight times more likely to grow by 20% or more than businesses just starting out on their journey to become truly insights driven.

But, the gathered audience wanted to know, what does this journey look like in real terms, and how can a business go about tackling this often-overwhelming challenge?

With a technology company running a discussion on advanced, insights-led decision making you would expect the talk to be centred on ML and AI, glistening with unique customer experiences and the latest future-facing developments. Far from it, as the focus fell firmly on the heavy-lifting job of transitioning from a customer aware, data-rich, and siloed business to customer led, insights driven, and connected organisation. An enormous challenge for many, and with the potential to pay significant dividends for most. As Judson Althoff from Microsoft said in 2018 – “…without data, all you will do with fancy AI technology is make mistakes with greater confidence than ever before.” Certainly, at Ensono we would like to think he was referring not just to data but to good quality data, the right data, the best managed data. It’s a simple adage but true – garbage in will inevitably result in garbage out and this is as true for insights driving your business decisions as it is for the data behind advanced AI functions.

When he came to Ensono for support, Chief Technology Officer Darrell Spencer and his team at Village Hotels were working with a legacy data platform. Coupled with poor governance, inconsistent data, and organisational dashboards burdened with inaccurate inputs, a lack of trust in data and insights had built up across the business. The culture was rejecting the data – different business functions were mistrustful of other people’s numbers, systems weren’t believed, and outcomes and KPIs were hard to track – and archaic technology was underpinning it all. “That caused a big problem for us,” says Darrell “we knew we needed to make sure that we were using the data we wanted to use and using it the way that we wanted to.”

Becoming an advanced insights-driven business must start with a data strategy with clear business outcomes at its heart. Village Hotels took this approach from the outset, going back to the bottom line and designing a data approach that would enable their growth and efficiency plans, was focused on customer needs, and laid out how these goals would impact the bottom line. From forecasting visitor numbers and planning staffing levels, to driving more efficiency in product ordering and understanding customer behaviours, ultimately the business was able to see how the four separate revenue streams of Village Hotels work together – both for the customer, and for the operation.

There is great value in taking time during initial planning and discovery phases to really understand what the outcomes need to look like, what data is needed, and for what purpose. Darrell refers to a time when data was gathered indiscriminately, the appeal of a data lake lying in its ability to hold everything you may want to use later. “I think we’ve learned this doesn’t work” he says, “it just becomes a swamp.” Focus, indeed, is vital, and it may require a business to be ruthless about the frequency, the volume, and the potential usage of any data collected. Essentially, being clear who is using the data and how it feeds into those all-important business outcomes is the key.

Forrester had earlier referenced subscription fashion brand Stitch Fix, a digital native company that uses rich customer insight – both gathered and inferred – to drive almost every aspect of their business. This business demonstrated the importance of moving beyond strategy and technology into the culture around data and insights. It’s important to understand how the people in the business are going to use this data, and how the business will create a closed loop that becomes part of every team. Stitch Fix have a Chief Algorithms Officer at C-suite level, and data scientists sitting at the heart of the operation. They don’t just use the data they collect to inform customer experience, but also to drive efficiencies in product inventory management and warehouse operations. Insights have also served to be the transformative driver behind the evolution of the logistics business Truckster. The organisation now uses insights such as GPS data, staffing information, load and route details across their operation, and triangulate these to not just plan the most efficient routes but also create a better experience for their drivers.

These are the business goals that will define the data needs and inform the solution that will deliver the better outcomes for the business.

The technical platform that underpins this digital approach is a significant decision at the heart of any data strategy and must be tied back to the business’s unique goals, background, and legacy technical landscape. Village Hotels – as so many of Ensono’s customers – came to us with multiple legacy systems in play. ‘We knew we had to invest in a platform that will give us that transparency to be able to see our multiple legacy systems, but also bring in new ones,” said Darrell. “We started this project, and everyone started getting ideas about bringing in new tools and functions. But we know we need to focus on what we do with the basics first.”

Operational usability is also a vital element in any platform selection, to make sure that the business will be able to engage with it easily and making the necessary cultural transformation that much smoother. Working with Ensono, Darrell decided on the approach of low code or no code where possible “because, historically, we know that making that journey easier for us is the route to being able to use it.”

For Village Hotels there is still much more opportunity on their journey to join the 7% and move beyond the fundamentals to the operational and customer experience enhancing opportunities that lie in well-fed ML and AI. “We understand our processes better, we can predict revenue a lot better, and there’s a lot of efficiencies that we’ve had to create. But having that single source of truth, that everyone believes in and trusts, and aligning our processes and data together, also gives us the potential to unlock machine learning and AI in the future.”

To hear more from our speakers, watch the discussions in full here:

How Village Hotels Leverages Data to Make Better, Faster Decisions

Forrester: Building an Insights-Driven Business


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