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Simon Prinn, head of data science and engineering, Walgreens Boots Alliance

Simon Prinn, head of data science and engineering, Walgreens Boots Alliance

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

 

We have a long history of developing and using a wide variety of detailed data sets and analytical techniques to continually enhance the products and services we provide to customers and patients. It was this richness of data which attracted me 23 years ago and it continues to grow, shaping more and more of our activity.


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

 

Naturally, the pandemic created a lot of unplanned activity, but actually I think this also created the opportunity to demonstrate further the benefits of big data analytics, developed with agility, and deployed quickly and accurately.

 

It really was a tough year, but it didn’t change my team’s plans, it just changed the ways of working for delivering them. With our global remit, we were well acquainted with working remotely, and so were able to make the full switch to it very quickly. I’ve always looked to recruit people who thrive on overcoming challenges, focusing on delivering “come what may,” and I think this really helped to see us through.

 

Lockdown did make some of our larger scale projects more tricky to navigate as some of the more ad hoc (yet crucial) discussions were more difficult to initiate. We quickly realised this was a challenge, and made a conscious effort to be strengthen our internal project communication, planning and monitoring.


As many others have found, recruitment became “interesting” as it was all carried out virtually. I’ve recruited people I’ve yet actually to meet in person!


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


2021 will be an exciting year for data and analytics. The pandemic has changed the structure of so many business problems, there has never been a greater need for analytics to support decision-making. I can see there will be more collaboration on projects globally, both internally, with partners and other third parties. I think all teams will be required to be more agile, with a willingness to quickly switch from one priority, technology or way of working to another. There will be less concept of “business as usual”.

 

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

 

Data for good has always been a key driver for me, beginning with my first roles in environmental and anti-poverty analysis/policy work in local government, then my move to Boots the Chemist. Given the current pandemic situation, I look forward to 2021, knowing that my team and I will be working on many initiatives which aim to improve peoples’ health and wellbeing through the activation of data.


What has been your path to power?

 

At university, my ambition was to work in environmental science. My first job was as a researcher for an environmental report in local government. This led to me picking up data analysis and GIS, but also facilitating action, and stakeholder management at director level.

 

I soon realised my interests were in analytics, and when the Boots Advantage Card scheme launched, I was intrigued and wanted to find out more. I became one of the first analysts to explore the data.


I was always looking for ways to get more insight from our data and systems, leading to a role in IT, partnering the marketing function, developing the technology roadmap for all areas of commercial analytics.


I returned to leading analytics projects, focusing initially on space and location optimisation and was asked to create a team to scale-up our capabilities to allow us to land initiatives across WBA globally, including in the US, Latin America, Europe and the Far East. The work really broadened and developed our expertise in data science and data engineering - our remit (and team size) extended accordingly.


What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

 

My first was just after university - a big analytical project I’d carried out made the front page of the Manchester Evening News. I really saw how impactful analytics could be and I was hooked!


The next would be leading a small analytics team for a successful trial of a Boots department in Walgreens. The analytical work was a huge challenge in very tight timescales, collaborating with people at all levels in a new organisation.


The main thing I’m proud of now is the mindset and culture of my team, its adaptability, resilience and reputation for getting stuff done.


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


My goal is to broaden the reach and accessibility of the best data and insight, wherever it can be used. Coupled with that, finding ways to encourage an ever more diverse range of talent into the analytics industry.


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 think there is an increasing alignment and focus on data, science and analytics in society as a whole at the moment, given the pandemic. We are presented daily with new charts, the R number and its implications. I believe this will increase understanding in data and statistics more generally. Likewise, we’re increasingly aware of the use of algorithms, whether for product and streaming recommendations, or estimating exam grades. These trends present the opportunity for the analytics community really to push for the wider adoption of analytics as fundamental to the success of their 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?

 

It’s a gradual process – start small, simple and accurate. It’s important to begin with the end in mind, so creating a roadmap and getting buy-in to it is crucial, celebrating successes along the way. It’s also vital to find a strong stakeholder for data led initiatives and build support as you go. There needs to be a compelling story around your approach - there should an arc to the story as it unfolds.

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