High-altitude agile data analysis at Virgin Atlantic

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

Tim Lum’s official job title is head of data and insights at Virgin Atlantic. However, to all intents and purposes, he is the chief data officer. He is in charge of making sure the company’s data governance is in line with GDPR, as well as implementing transformative strategies.

Tim Lum, Virgin Atlantic Airways"How do we start thinking about data as a strategic asset?"

“I’m looking at how we start thinking about data as a strategic asset, how do we transform the business to think about data and information as an asset,” he said. He added that, in the first few months in the job, he was helping Virgin Atlantic to get a delivery pipeline of the existing data partners needed for this year.

When Lum joined in August 2017, he found the transition a little challenging as he discovered that, “the idea of agile delivery isn’t exactly native to airlines.”

The contrast is discernible as Lum worked in statistical analysis and data ever since his first job out of university, running statistical analysis on state-wide datasets in the US. He said his history has been “agile only,” taking a more agile-native approach to projects.

"Agile projects are slowly becoming part of the landscape."

On the other hand, with regards to airlines, Lum said: “You cannot deliver a new type of aircraft in an agile fashion, so gigantic projects are the norm at airlines, but agile projects are slowly becoming part of the landscape.”

He sees an adjustment taking place with colleagues understanding what agile can look like in an airline business. “In terms of getting the team to get agile, it has been challenging because you have to take them on that journey, across both your suppliers and the people who help you manage those suppliers,” he said.

Lum honed his skills in agile delivery with four years at Expedia, as well as positions at Barclays, World Vision and Skimlinks, a digital affiliate marketing company.That was a "scale-up" business, a firm that is too big to be classed as a start-up, but is still relatively young.

So how does working at a young-ish and nimble company compare to working for one of the best-known brands in the world? Lum said it about is the value you can prove.  He explained that working in a scale-up involved a lot of experimentation as well as a lot of research and development. Unfortunately, sometimes the results would just sit unused, as the commercial viability wouldn’t always have been researched from the get-go.

“The onus is on having better commercial acumen."

Aircraft in sky with lines behind

However, Lum said that in a large-scale company like Virgin Atlantic, you would have to have at least an idea of how much the result would be able to benefit the business, before embarking on any projects.

“The onus is on having better commercial acumen and the ability to sell it across a wider set of stakeholders, as well as the influencing skills that need to go with it,” he said.

With airlines facing the same challenge of learning how to become more data-driven, one might think there could be some information exchange between the carriers on best data practice. Lum said this does happen to a certain extent. “There’s a lot of conversation on sharing, but not necessarily a lot of collaboration at the ground level. A lot of airlines are technically 'frenemies', because we operate across similar routes that require us to have joint ventures in some places and be competitors in others. We’re conversing about best practice, but not necessarily collaborating.”

So, while agile project delivery may still be taxiing near the gate, according to Lum, Virgin Atlantic is flying high when it comes to proving commercial viability.

Tim Lum is a member of the DataIQ100.