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Chris Teolis, head of data office and analytics, Heathrow Airport

Chris Teolis, head of data office and analytics, Heathrow Airport

How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?

 

Heathrow’s vision is to give passengers the best airport service in the world. We cannot do that without knowing who our passengers are and how to make their individual journeys better. Our research and insights team develop a deep understanding of our customers – conducting 100,000 face-to-face surveys every year, thousands of online surveys and combining it all with data from industry bodies and commerciall- available sources. Our performance reporting process is robust and readily available to everyone in the business, so we all know how we are tracking against our KPIs.

 

2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?

 

There isn’t an area of our business that wasn’t dramatically impacted by the events of 2020, not only did Covid-19 wreak havoc on our passenger volumes, but our expansion plans were halted due to the legal challenge brought against them. I started a new role in 2020 with plans to launch two major BI platforms and create a centralised home for operational analytics.

 

I was formalising the structure and objectives of my new team when Covid-19 hit. Fairly quickly thereafter, the company reorganised and drastically cut costs - all my plans were stopped. I was offered a new role leading a new team and went back to the drawing board, this time with a limited headcount and reduced ambitions. The focus now was to protect the business.

 

I secured some great talent from across the business for my team and we set off improving operational efficiencies and many of the smaller teams become more dat- driven, including one of 2020’s spotlight teams – diversity and inclusion.

 

Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?

 

It is difficult to say. The ongoing pandemic forces Heathrow to stay conservative and continue to focus on cost savings. Any investment in data and analytics must demonstrate a very quick ROI. I expect new opportunities coming from our digital marketplace transformation and touchless journey infrastructure. But the core data and analytics work will be the incremental improvements in the daily grind.

 

Having just launched our company-wide data lake and associated analysts’ workbench, we will continue to develop our data operating model - changing our ways of working, developing career paths and establishing the data governance required for a data-driven organisation.

 

Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?

 

One of the most exciting and innovative projects I’ve been involved with in the past year is an AI for Good project in collaboration with Microsoft, Traffic International, the Royal Foundation United for Wildlife and UK Border Force CITES. As part of Heathrow’s sustainability initiative to be a responsible gateway to the world, a passionate individual took up the charge to end the illegal transportation of wildlife and wildlife products through airports and I was lucky enough to get involved early on in the project. In short, we are creating algorithms to identify items of interest in luggage. I hope to increase my contribution to the project in 2021.

 

What has been your path to power?

 

My career to date is bookended by building bridges, quite literally to begin with and now more figuratively. After graduating from McGill University, my first job was with IBI Group, building travel demand forecasting models for a new bridge between Canada and the US. I then moved to the US, working for Cambridge Systematics and built simulation models – digital twins of roadways used for predicting congestion under various scenarios.

 

After years of consulting, I wanted to spend some time on the client side, I also wanted to move to Europe. I joined Heathrow Airport and was immediately drawn into the complexities and opportunities - I remember thinking it was like a self-contained city.

 

At the time, we were building a performance management information system. I took on the role of business owner and learned a great deal about data modelling and governance, as well as business change and digital transformation. I built relationships in many areas of the business by being interested in technology, data and business processes and wanting to combine them to improve outcomes. I’ve leveraged these relationships to build bridges between various areas of the business that otherwise would be siloed and also to elevate the data and analytics community.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

The achievement that currently stands out above all others is the establishment of an analytics community. In 2018, a small group assembled to discuss the future of data and analytics at Heathrow. We were talking about centralisation, writing architecture strategies and proposals for the executive. Nearing the end of 2019, we had lots of documents, but nothing had really changed for analysts. I decided we shouldn’t wait for the executive to act on some grand scheme, and instead I would create a community to connect analysts, their expertise, their data, their experiences and processes. The community has been a great success and continues to meet every fortnight.

 

Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?

 

I am passionate about the people I work with, in my team and in the wider community. I have been lucky enough to work for a past member of the DataIQ 100 who has supported my career progression, but it wasn’t easy or straight forward. I had to carve my own path, creating jobs for myself and writing my own job descriptions. As part of the development of our data operating model, I am working to establish formal career ladders and development opportunities for the community that enable them to progress their careers managerially and/or technically.

 

How closely aligned to the business are data and analytics both within your own organisation and at an industry level? What helps to bring the two closer together?

 

Our current decentralised data and analytics structure results in a close alignment to the business. Each team is embedded within a business unit and is led by their priorities. Alignment is one of the key benefits of decentralisation and one I continue to consider when thinking about our future structure.

 

My team acts as a centre of excellence for those business units without an analytics team. In the creation of my team, I’ve adopted the business partner model found in other centralised teams, such as HR and finance. We are strongly rooted in requirements gathering to ensure we are being led by our customers. Members of the team are encouraged to find new solutions and pitch them to a business unit - they must outline the benefits and get support from a senior manager within the business unit before any significant resources are committed.

 

I believe the key to alignment is regular communication, through decentralisation or business partnering, and having clear priorities and requirements to deliver agreed outcomes.

 

What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?

 

We are having this exact conversation right now. Our current premise is that it needs to start with leadership. Leaders need to do more than talk about the importance of data, they need to challenge decision-makers – make it a hassle to avoid using data. You also need great information systems that provide people with the right information at the right time. The systems need to make data-driven decision-making easy. And, for the more complex questions, data literacy training gives decision-makers the tools to engage analysts in the most productive way. Analysts also have a part to play by proactively selling their services.

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