An Irish analyst, an English management consultant and a German technologist walked into a consultancy. No, it’s not the start of an obscure joke, but rather the origin story of Helioserv, a data exploitation firm that aims to bring plain speaking to the often hyper-technical (and hyped) world of big data analytics.
As chief analytics officer for RBS, Alan Grogan had seen first-hand just how often consultants were exploiting their clients, rather than their data. As a non-executive director in the business at its start (but now associate partner, data and analytics, at Atos), he brought client-side insights to the 15 years' experience of analytics in the financial services sector provided by CEO Brett Sanford. Underpinning their business knowledge, CTO Chris von Csefalvay adds the technical skills, including a deep understanding of computer science, data science and artificial intelligence.
What brought the three together was a desire, as von Csefalvay told DataIQ, “to see what we can do when it is just us and there is nobody to mess up a good job.” It quickly becomes clear that Helioserv has arisen as much out of a frustration with conventional consulting methods as it did from a belief in the transformational power of data and analytics.
“Every client of ours has spent money on the large consultancy firms. After we present to them, they say, ‘we thought you’d just give us a slide deck’. We don’t like PowerPoint - what we give clients is an actionable solution and something they can start with,” he says. Proofs of concept are a regular entry point, often worked through in one afternoon using the client’s own data.
Unconventionality seems to be written into the DNA of both the business and its founders. Von Csefalvay studied law and qualified as a solicitor, “but I started to do data science on the side,” he notes. As a consultant in his own right, he worked on projects like flood prevention in Saudi Arabia - not a case of taking coals to Newcastle, but a recognition that the country’s annual rainfall can happen in a single day, for example.
Helping clients to make sense of the deluge of data they are confronted by is at the core of the consultancy’s work, wrapped in a vendor-agnostic, technology-neutral approach. “The only thing we really want is to find what works for the client. The resource we have that others don’t is a better understanding of technology,” he says.
Engaging early with tech start-ups, especially in fintech, to bring their propositions to bear on clients and thereby give them competitive advantage is part of Helioserv’s working practice. “We are helping companies with those technologies before other consultancies have even heard of them,” boasts von Csefalvay. ”Some of the most innovative companies in the world right now are small firms, especially those taking the next steps with analytics.”
This means challenging even the just-happened wave of self-service analytics and data visualisation. According to von Csefalvay, “if you look at those from the perspective of the business, what is bad is the way they give out automated responses to questions, rather than delivering prescriptive analytics. That is being ignored and only talked about in academic papers. But we are able to implement techniques which may only recently have been published and that gives our clients the edge.”
Changing the culture around data and analytics is one of the major goals - and challenges - for the consultancy, not least because “the traditional idea of the role of data is to think it is technology-based and that they can just automate a process if a consultancy brings in a solution. But that is not the case.”
Gaining trust when introducing new thinking, especially in business-critical process is always hard for a new consultancy. As von Csefalvay accepts, “clients need to know we are not going to screw up. But data volumes are just a technical issue. As a technologist, I believe every problem has a solution.”
What makes the current maturity of data and analytics so challenging, however, is that “I have yet to see two engagements with clients that are the same. We are often given a technical problem which turns out to have a cultural problem underneath and you can’t resolve one without fixing the other. We are all about trying to bring both up to the same level.”