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Purple Frog at the heart of “big data” revolution

Alex Whittles Big DataWhat difference would it make to your business if you could see all of the moving parts presented in one place, in real-time?

Imagine a “dashboard” that shows you the numbers that matter the most, allowing you to act on them straight away.

It could contain the number of orders, as they come in. It might show the level of stock you hold, the most popular products today, the level of profit you’re running at or the number of staff hours lost (and therefore the cost) because your most troublesome machine is down again.

It’s hard to think of many businesses that would not benefit from being able to see their most crucial figures pulled together and presented in meaningful ways.

Many organisations do not actually recognise the value and depth of information that they generate all the time and could be using to improve efficiency – and therefore profit.

Fortunately, we live and work in exciting times, where the technology and skills exist to identify, collect and process all of this information. It’s not something that happens widely yet, at least not in meaningful ways, but it is the direction of travel that will be taken by the firms which will be the most successful tomorrow.

The biggest blockage to making this a reality is the expertise to extract and interpret and combine the data. It’s quite a specialism, which then has to be allied with the technological know-how to present it in reliable and understandable ways.

One of the companies leading the way internationally in this fascinating and burgeoning field is based right here in Shropshire. Purple Frog Systems is recognised throughout the IT sector as a leader in its field when it comes to managing and using big data, to the point where computing giant Microsoft has identified two of its consultants as Most Valued Professionals on the global stage.

It’s an accolade given only to those who lead the way in their field and who share their specialist knowledge with the wider industry.

Founder and principal consultant at Purple Frog Systems, Alex Whittles, travels the world presenting on the intricacies of his specialism and the company runs some of the most popular conferences on what is known as data warehousing. He and his colleague, Paul Andrew (also a Microsoft Most Valued Professional), can often be found on Microsoft’s Redmond campus in Seattle.

Alex said: “Because we live in a digital world, there is data everywhere, about almost every aspect of what a business does. It’s not always obvious, sometimes far from it, but even the most simple process or interaction could have a massive impact if you can gather, analyse and read the data. That sounds obvious, but the information most businesses hold comes in a multitude of different formats, very few of which are designed to talk to each other or be directly relatable.

“That’s where we and the tools we use come in. Our specialism is identifying the data, being able to reliably extract it and understand it, relate it to other sources of information and then present it, often in real time, to our clients.”

One of the hardest things about handing data, Alex will tell you, is that if you interpret it wrongly or misunderstand what it’s telling you at any stage, you will end up spitting out bad data at the other end of the process, so experience in understanding the pitfalls is crucial. Fortunately, Alex is a member of Mensa.

“When we come to presenting the data it’s been through a number of processes, from being extracted – perhaps from some obscure, task specific manufacturing system – to being combined with other sources of intelligence and then, essentially, made readable by anyone,” he explains.

“By the time it reaches the production manager, the finance director or the CEO, the hard work is done and they are able to look at straightforward, often graphical representations of the inner workings of their organisation. From that they can made rational and timely decisions.”

The obvious question is how this might work in real world situations. What can you learn that you can act on and where does the information originate?

“The things you can learn and the way data can be used are essentially endless. One great example is a national FTSE250 chain of retail stores that we work with. Their point of sale systems, the tills, record when a product is sold and that data all goes back from each shop to head office in realtime. When a particular line gets low, or perhaps is showing itself to be more popular than others, that information can be acted on very quickly to ensure there are no sales lost through running out of stock. If it’s in the warehouse it can go straight on a lorry for the next resupply, or an order can go to the supplier for more to be ordered, perhaps even automatically.

“In the past this might have relied on store managers filling in forms or spreadsheets, maybe once a week, and sending them to head office to be read and compiled by someone else. Literally weeks would be lost across the course of a year in time taken to resupply that directly impacts on the bottom line.”

The same principles can be applied in almost any business. Purple Frog Systems has also worked extensively with financial organisations, for example Principality Building Society. As anyone who deals with figures will know, there can be multiple versions of the truth depending on how number are reported and interpreted and finances can be a fast-moving environment, affected by global factors.

Alex said: “For Principality we were able to provide them with definitive, accurate numbers, quickly made available to senior management and anyone else who needed them. On top of this, the system provides a full audit trail and transparency in the calculations used. And because the information is in one place and known to be high quality it means that all of the regulatory returns they are required to make are available and ready to be filed weeks before the regulators demand them.”

Those are just two examples of very different businesses which have grasped the nettle and put their data to work, with transformative results. When you begin to imagine the possibilities for your own business they can seem endless – and very exciting.

Why then isn’t every business already doing this? Alex and his team know: “We’ve reached a point now where more people are understanding the value of their data, which is collected all over the place. Having the technological tools to pull that detail together and process it meaningfully and, critically, in an affordable way, is what has really changed.

“It used to require massive, expensive mainframe computers to do this kind of work. Now anyone can access the power of cloud computing, where you can turn on the processing power and storage you need on demand and only pay for what you use. No need for technicians to maintain your servers or for expensive capital replacement programmes, just rent the capacity you need. That puts it in everyone’s grasp, with tools like Power BI that have revolutionised the accessibility and cost of this, bringing Business Intelligence into everyone’s reach.”

Presumably then, every business will be going down this road any time now?

“Realisation is dawning for many business leaders, but the bottleneck is likely to be skills. If you misunderstand the relationships in the data what you get out is worse than useless. In fact it’s positively damaging because it’s wrong. Specialists with the right credentials need to be behind interpreting and presenting the data and they are going be increasingly in demand because such skills are not a tap you can simply turn on.” says Alex.

That’s something Alex and colleague Paul are both concerned about and actively working to change by supporting initiatives to encourage more young people to look at the opportunities in science, technology and engineering.

So, does global demand for their particular skills mean that Shropshire holds little business interest for the Purple Frog team?

Not at all, says Alex: “It’s great travelling the world discussing what we do and working with global companies, but it’s not all glamour and we can see huge potential for companies right here in Shropshire to harness business intelligence and put themselves at the forefront of their sectors. The advance in cloud technology and the Microsoft technologies we work with make this a reality for everyone and we want to encourage that. The data revolution is open to everyone!”