How is your organisation using data and analytics to support the corporate vision and purpose?
It has been an exciting year for Mango as we were acquired by Ascent Software in November 2020. We had been partnering with Ascent for months on projects and, based on the success of that partnership, we decided to make it a permanent arrangement.
As a business, Mango has 18 years of experience helping customers to underpin their data strategy by delivering value through a series of repeatable analytic initiatives, while helping them build an internal, scalable analytic capability. However, our philosophy is based on the belief that the repeatable and scalable delivery of value in a commercial organisation requires a strong technical backbone. Fundamentally, we believe that every data project is a software project, and every software project is a data project.
What really drove the decision to join with Ascent was our alignment around the role of technology in enabling data science to be scaled and deployed across an organisation. In coming together, our strategy is to enable our customers to realise data-driven value at the intersection of data, analytics and technology.
2020 was a year like no other - how did it impact on your planned activities and what unplanned ones did you have to introduce?
2020 certainly threw up some challenges for us as a business, but we were lucky to have the team and infrastructure in place to allow us to overcome these obstacles.
The start of the year saw us complete an 18-month phase of growth, where we scaled the team and invested in everything from sales and marketing to back-end finance and IT systems. However, when Covid hit in March, we saw projects paused in some of our sectors (such as retail and leisure) as clients looked to understand the impact on their businesses.
Thanks to our pre-Covid investment, we were in a position to focus on the sectors where customers were able to continue their investment in advanced analytics, such as finance, pharmaceutical and the public sector. In this way, we were able to grow in 2020, hitting financial targets and growing headcount, which culminated in our winning the DataIQ Data and analytics team of the year award, and paving the way for a successful acquisition by Ascent in November.
One of our core values at Mango is “agility” and I’m incredibly proud of the numerous examples of creativity across the team this year to overcome obstacles, including an IT team that enabled us to switch to a 100% WFH model in less than 24 hours, pivoting to be able to provide interactive, online training in a matter of weeks, transforming our annual EARL conference into a virtual event, or converting a 40-person, face-to-face interactive design workshop into a successful online event at very short notice! We certainly lived our agility value this year!
Looking forward to 2021, what are your expectations for data and analytics within your organisation?
Data and analytics is the focal point of our strategy and how we are able to deliver value to our customers though efficiency gains and informed decision-making. Now we’ve come together with Ascent, we see a great deal of opportunity ahead and are busy integrating the businesses to allow for the increased business we are already seeing.
As a consultancy, we are already looking to expand our data science business to meet demand, facilitated initially by an increased headcount within our award-winning team. Beyond that, we are looking to significantly build on our existing data platforms, data engineering and business intelligence areas - this will allow our customers access to an end-to-end data service to support their business objectives.
We are also working to integrate the data proposition at the heart of Ascent’s business, which will allow us to create more data-driven applications aligned to business aspirations. So, 2021 is looking to be a very busy year, with lots of planned growth and investment to enable us better to enable our customers to build more intelligent, efficient and engaging organisations.
Is data for good part of your personal or business agenda for 2021? If so, what form will it take?
Data for good is something we think about in every customer engagement, as we focus on helping organisations get closer to their purpose by building data-driven capability. Keeping a customer’s purpose as our North Star in every engagement allows us to contribute to their ability to achieve something more aspirational than economic exchanges. Our primary role is empowering them through better decision-making and insight to make a fundamental difference to the world around them.
In terms of our direct agenda, we have partnered with both Women in Data and the NHS-R communities since they began. We have been proud to support these important initiatives and provide our expertise, knowledge and advice. Our 2020 EARL conference, like so many, had to be cancelled, but we ran a virtual conference with the profit going to the Data for Black Lives charity. In 2021, we are hoping to run an in-person conference again and are planning a green theme with invited speakers presenting on their use of R for environmental and ecological projects.
What has been your path to power?
As a trained statistician in the late 90s, I found the role of analytics in industry disappointing. Advanced analytics felt like an introverted, reactive activity used to solve a narrow set of problems which were disconnected from the real challenges that organisations faced.
A passion for programming and problem-solving led me to a consulting role at Insightful, the developers of S+ (predecessor of R). This allowed me to work across a range of industries and to understand how data could add value in a variety of situations.
At Insightful, I met Matt Aldridge and we shared a mutual belief - we could see the potential of advanced analytics to drive value and believed in a data-driven future for business. However, organisations struggled with technical and cultural issues that prevented the value from being realised. So, we founded Mango Solutions in 2002 to provide pragmatic advice and consulting and to help organisations deliver on the potential of data science.
While at Mango, I was able to get heavily involved in the R language. I was the first R Consortium president, co-authored the “R in 24 Hours” book, instigated R events such as EARL and the LondonR user group and taught over 200 R training courses.
Over the course of 18 years, Matt and I built Mango to 75 people, winning the DataIQ Data and analytics team of the year award in 2020. In November 2020, Mango was acquired by Ascent where I lead the data practice, working on the integration of data and software to deliver data-driven value aligned to an organisation’s purpose.
What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?
It has to be the moment in 2020 when we won the DataIQ Data and analytics team of the year award. It was an incredibly proud moment for us and a fitting testament to the skills and dedication of our team.
Tell us about a career goal or a purpose for your organisation that you are pursuing?
The short-term goal is to integrate Mango and Ascent into a single organisation, enabling customers to access deep experience in data, analytics and software all under one roof. This will create a unified approach to delivery across the data and technology spectrum and allow a consistent approach aligned to our customers’ business goals.
Beyond that, we will be focusing on helping leaders to achieve their purpose, using the power of data and technology to help them deliver on their aspirations more quickly and more effectively.
Personally, the best moments for me are when I see organisations realising the value from their data and transforming to employ more data-driven business models. In particular, I enjoy working with executives to educate and inspire them on the possibilities of data and analytics, leading to the identification of high-value initiatives that help them create more intelligent, efficient, engaging organisations.
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?
Data and analytics are at the heart of our business. The approach to the proactive use of data and analytics varies greatly across the consulting industry, which can range from large consultancies to small startups focusing on specific aspects of data.
One of the challenges we’ve seen is the absence of consultancies which are large enough to demonstrate deep expertise in data and software, while flexible enough to provide an agile and pragmatic approach to providing practical advice to value generation. With the recent acquisition, we are confident that we fill that gap, providing extensive expertise in data and software combined with a focus on helping customers build purpose-driven organisations.
What is your view on how to develop a data culture in an organisation, building out data literacy and creating a data-first mindset?
This is an area I’m passionate about and have been working on for a number of years.
For me, it stemmed from a presentation I saw a while back where the creation of a data-driven business was really about “coffee and cake”. The idea here is that I (someone who understands what data and analytics can do) sits down for “coffee and cake” with a business person (someone who understands the business challenges and the impacts of overcoming these). During the conversation, we find a business challenge that can be met with data and then drive ahead to solve it.
The challenge I have always had with this model is that it just isn’t scalable. There are not enough people who understand data and analytics fundamentally and who can have these business conversations instead of falling back on creating models and writing code.
I believe the route to a data-driven organisation is founded in education for the business and the delivery of tactical wins aligned to a longer-term data-enabled business strategy. Teaching business users about the possibilities and language of data and analytics is essential to help them uncover analytic possibilities. Delivering on this understanding builds momentum in the organisation and increases the number of data enthusiasts.
Practically, we’ve developed a series of workshops and training courses to help leadership and management to understand the language and opportunity of data and analytics, which have been successful in creating a data-first culture in a range of organisations. In particular, this has been a really successful way to connect analytic initiatives to business drivers through the creation of language that aligns well to the existing culture - this creates effective bridges between business, data and IT teams and ensures everyone is driving towards the same outcome.