When Steve Pimblett joined The Very Group in October 2020 as Chief Data Officer, reporting to the conglomerate’s CIO, his task was to help the company uncover the value of its rich data heritage.
For a company that has made a name for itself in catalog mail order, the idea of creating a company-wide data catalog seemed like a fitting part of that process.
Very was born from the successive mergers of several mail order catalog companies, the oldest dating back to the 1890s. Its constituent companies then moved into retail, launched new mail order brands selling clothing at credit and even created a consumer financial data broker, which later grew like so many of the group’s other non-core businesses.
The group’s online movement began in the 1990s with its first steps into e-commerce, followed by the closure of its physical stores in 2005. It launched its first online-only brand, Very, in 2009 and eventually ditched its print catalogs to go all-online in 2015.
The whole company was rebranded as Very in 2020, the year Pimblett joined. It found a rich collection of data assets, including information on more than 2.2 million daily website visits, 4.8 million active customers, and 49 million items delivered annually.
Behind the flagship brand, however, he says data has remained scattered in silos across many business units and legacy applications, with limited automation, many glossaries and complex data lineage, and stewardship making governance difficult. and auditing.
Data and analytics experts were also spread across the organization, with some being part of the technology team, but others embedded in the various business units.
“There was no one to help everyone with central standards and approaches, so each vertical was doing it differently,” he says. “It’s everything from how they collect and measure data, to how they understand it and their own glossary. It was very fragmented, and I put it together in a star pattern.
The new model allows Very to design once and deploy everywhere, while maintaining a product orientation.
As a result, Pimblett now manages the organization’s data warehouse, analytics, and business intelligence. “We’re a Power BI store,” he says. “I manage the infrastructure and a central corporate BI team.”
Establish a clear and unified approach to data
But getting to that stage was a complex process that involved building centers of excellence for things like data analytics that own the end-to-end infrastructure, application and skill sets, and blueprints. career for staff.
Pimblett has taken a carrot and stick approach to getting everyone working together, partnering with them on value creation (the profit carrot) and risk mitigation (the compliance stick). “It’s about making sure we understand the legal basis on which we capture the data, what we do with it, where it flows, how we use it, and how we govern all of those things,” he says.
Companies need to be aware of the dual nature of the data they hold, that it can be both an asset and a liability, he says.
One of the first projects he was able to add value on through a partnership between his data hub and one of the business unit spokes was building a new demand forecasting tool.
“We’re a multi-category retailer with over 160,000 SKUs, so predicting how much inventory to buy for each SKU is a business challenge, but also a technological and mathematical challenge,” he says.
To get buy-in from business units for projects like this, he says, “you have to sell them the benefits and outcomes of shared platforms, reuse, shared data and the efficiencies that they will get”, not the technology. you will use.
“A lot of roles in data only talk about data,” he says. “Where do we store it? What is the infrastructure? What is our storage technology? You know, the good old database administrators, modelers and analysts. »
Instead, Pimblett says, he and his fellow data scientists ask business leaders, “Where do you think you can create value from data? What kind of decisions do you make? Where is it possible to automate? And how can we delight the customer or empower your colleagues to make better decisions? Turn it into a result, a value and an action conversation. It tends to engage them,” he says.
A more agile catalog activity
Very has come full circle as a catalog data-driven business, but it took some soul-searching to figure out the best way to get there.
“Catalogizing your data is more important than ever for many businesses, with so many technology options, different data silos, enterprise warehousing, lake houses, data lakes, and all those kinds of capabilities,” says Pimblett . “Understanding what data you have locked in all these different stores is a big part of the puzzle.”
So he started working on a pilot project with data catalog and governance tools provider Alation about a year ago, after responding to Very’s RFP. In an early test of the technology, he used Alation to catalog a subset of Very’s data held in an old Teradata database. It took about nine weeks to set up the infrastructure, connect to the database, index and understand the metadata. Very focuses on short sprints like this, rather than monolithic 12-month projects that might not fit the business once completed.
“Running a pilot within nine weeks, proving it, proving the value, and then putting it into production, that’s basically what we think about our comprehensive technology program,” he says.
However, Pimblett has yet to catalog all of Very’s data. It will always be a work in progress. “We select areas with the highest value potential and risk,” he says. “We’ve done that in our financial services area and in some of our marketing areas. These tend to contain the greatest amount of information about our customers.
The next step will be to roll it out across the enterprise.
“We have massive systems that take time to index, not from a technical standpoint, but from a stewardship and data comprehension standpoint,” he says.
Value, not vanity
Reflecting on the things he could have done differently in the two years since joining Very, Pimblett cautions against jumping into new tech projects for the sake of it and recommends always thinking first. to the desired result or action.
If you don’t, he says, “there will be an occasion where you will realize that you have not lived up to your own principles and start with the action and the result.” In these situations, he says, you have to tell yourself, “Go back to your strategy. You wasted value because you had a team working on a vanity project rather than creating business value.
One of the next value-creating projects that Very will apply its rich lending data centers to: by the end of 2022 it will pilot a new personal finance business, offering its existing customer base loans of up to £7,500 ($8,800). ) over one to five years.
“We have a trusted brand and we’ve only just begun to innovate leveraging our technology and data capabilities,” he says.