How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?
In my previous role, as an insurance company, Aviva have always used data to make forecasts of the risks that they’re underwriting - it’s core to the business. However, over the past few years they have dramatically broadened their use of data. The work now encompasses anything from using contemporary machine learning techniques to continue to improve our predictions to the use of natural language processing to track consumer sentiment to the development of AI engines in order to personalise the customer experience.
2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?
Like many others, Aviva initially focused on the operational challenges of moving to a remote workforce. In their case, at one stage had upwards of 25,000 working from home, something that we never would have thought possible…But it’s amazing what an organisation can achieve when everyone pulls together in times of crisis.
From a data science perspective, there was a lot of early work to evaluate the likely impact of the pandemic on our business. Insuring customers’ holidays, car journeys and health, and a pandemic impacts all of these directly.
Aviva have moved on to increase their focus on understanding customers’ ongoing needs through their data - how they’re interacting with them and which products are most relevant. It’s an interesting time in which customer behaviour is evolving rapidly and it’s only through data that we can know what’s going on.
Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?
Aviva will continue to use data across the organisation to improve business performance, both from an effectiveness and efficiency point of view. The incoming CEO has reaffirmed the commitment to understanding customers better than ever before and to using that understanding to create class-leading products and services. They will also be focusing on a few innovations that can potentially drive dramatic growth. Data and analytics are at the heart of the agenda.
Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?
Yes! We have a few different angles to this.
As a company, Aviva allows all employees to spend an amount of their work time on volunteering. I’m a big believer that if people are using their professional skills in their volunteering activity, they’re making the biggest contribution possible.
Before the 2020 lockdown, Aviva had planned a number of “charity hack” initiatives whereby data scientists would be able to use their considerable skills to help charities directly. It’s great that we’ve been able to start resuming this programme as things get back to normal.
Aviva are also founder members of the University of Cambridge Trinity Challenge. This is an initiative set up with the aim of using data to prevent future pandemics. I think that’s about as good as it gets.
What has been your path to power?
I started my career in academia in the 1990s. This was long before data scientist was crowned the “sexiest job of the 21st Century”, though I was fascinated by the ways in which statistical techniques could turn data into predictions. I used statistical modelling and simulation methods to build a budget forecasting system for a local health authority - the type of thing that would be called machine learning today.
I worked at the BBC for a couple of years, using similar methods to predict the demand for technology services, after which I made a move into Wunderman, part of WPP and one of the biggest marketing agencies in the world. We would pride ourselves on our ability to create great marketing experiences by marrying creative thinking with deep customer insight based on analytics. I loved the opportunity to use data and analytics to understand people better.
After a few years, I moved to dunnhumby - an early leader in customer-centric data science - where I ran the UK’s analytics and insight teams for Tesco and other clients. I later moved to MoneySuperMarket where I became chief data scientist. It was great to be able to build a new team for an online business where we could use data science to create personalised customer experiences.
I joined Aviva four years ago and am delighted to be helping one our oldest financial services companies become a 324-year old disruptor. I’m responsible for ensuring that we maintain a class-leading capability by continually evolving our technology and data assets, as well as ensuring that we offer data science teams across the globe the best training and development opportunities.
In February 2021, I joined LEGO Group as chief data officer.
What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?
I’m honoured to have picked up a few accolades over the years, but I’m really most proud of my teams - they’re a diverse bunch of superstars.
Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?
Aviva’s company purpose is to be, “with you today, for a better tomorrow”. I like to think that everything I’ve done helped the company set itself up for the future, whether that’s building new capabilities to extend the reach and scope of data science, or partnering with the University of Cambridge to stay at the cutting-edge of the field.
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?
I regard them as one and the same. I’m not keen on analytics teams that talk about the business in the third person, as I think everyone needs to share accountability for delivering great results.
What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?
Firstly, always remember that data culture is about people more than technology.
Secondly, if you’re at the start of the journey, focus on a few quick wins: easily understood areas in which the use of data can deliver tangible business benefit.
And lastly, set the tone from the top: the board, CEO and executive team need to understand and role model the culture or it’s dead.