When Steve Pimblett joined The Very Group in October 2020 as chief data officer, reporting to the conglomerate\u2019s CIO, his task was to help the enterprise uncover value in its rich data heritage.\n\nFor a company that made its name in mail-order catalog sales, the idea of building an enterprise-wide data catalog seemed to be an appropriate part of that process.\n\nVery grew from the successive mergers of a number of mail order catalog companies, the oldest dating back to the 1890s. Its constituent companies later moved into high-street retail, launched new mail-order brands selling clothing on credit, and even created a consumer financial data broker, later spun off like so many of the group\u2019s other non-core activities.\n\nThe group\u2019s move online began in the 1990s with its first steps into e-commerce, followed by the closure of its physical stores in 2005. It launched its first online-only brand, Very, in 2009 and finally abandoned its printed catalogs to go all-in online in 2015.\n\nThe whole company rebranded as Very in 2020, the year Pimblett joined. He found a rich collection of data assets, including information on over 2.2 million daily website visits, 4.8 million active customers and 49 million items delivered annually.\n\nBehind the flagship brand, though, he says data remained scattered in siloes across many legacy business units and applications, with limited automation, many glossaries, and complex data lineage, and stewardship making it hard to govern and audit.\n\nData and analytics experts were also spread across the organization, with some under the technology team but others embedded in the various business units.\n\n\u201cThere was no one to help everybody with standards and central approaches, so every business vertical was doing it differently,\u201d he says. \u201c\u2018It\u2019 being everything from how they collect and measure data, to how they understand it and their own glossary. It was very fragmented, and I brought it together into a hub-and-spoke model.\u201d\n\nThe new model enables Very to design once and deploy everywhere, while maintaining a product focus.\n\nAs a result, Pimblett now runs the organization\u2019s data warehouse, analytics, and business intelligence. \u201cWe\u2019re a Power BI shop,\u201d he says. \u201cI run the infrastructure and a central enterprise BI team.\u201d\n\nEstablishing a clear and unified approach to data\n\nBut getting to this stage was an intricate process that involved creating centers of excellence for things like data analytics that own the end-to-end infrastructure, application and skill sets, as well as career plans for staff.\n\nPimblett took a carrot-and-stick approach to get everyone working together, partnering with them on value creation (the carrot of profit) and risk mitigation (the stick of compliance). \u201cIt\u2019s about making sure we understand the legal basis by which we're capturing data, what we're doing with it, where it flows, how we use it, and that we govern all those things,\u201d he says.\n\nEnterprises need to be aware of the dual nature of the data they hold, that it can be both an asset and a liability, he says.\n\nOne of the early projects on which he was able to add value through a partnership between his data hub and one of the business unit spokes was in building a new demand forecasting tool.\n\n\u201cWe're a multi-category retailer with over 160,000 SKUs, so forecasting how much stock to buy of each SKU is a business challenge, but also very much a technology and mathematical challenge,\u201d he says.\n\nTo get buy-in from business units for projects like this, he says, \u201cyou have to sell them the benefit and the outcome of shared platforms, reuse, shared data, and the efficiencies that they'll get,\u201d and not the technology you\u2019ll use.\n\n\u201cA lot of roles in data just talk about the data,\u201d he says. \u201cWhere do we store it? What's the infrastructure? What's our warehousing technology? You know, good old DBAs, modelers, and analysts.\u201d\n\nInstead, says Pimblett, he and his data colleagues ask business managers, \u201cWhere do you think you can create value from data? What type of decisions are you making? Where is there opportunity to automate? And how can we delight the customer or empower your colleagues to take better decisions? Turn it into an outcome, a value and an action conversation. That tends to get them engaged,\u201d he says.\n\n A more nimble catalog business\n\nVery has come full circle as a business built on catalog data, but it took some introspection in order to figure out the best way to get there.\n\n\u201cCataloging your data is more important than ever for many companies, with so many technology options, different data silos, enterprise warehousing, lake houses, data lakes, and all those types of capabilities,\u201d says Pimblett. \u201cUnderstanding what data you've got locked in all these different stores is a big part of the jigsaw puzzle.\u201d\n\nSo he began working on a pilot project with data catalog and governance tool vendor Alation about a year ago, after it responded to Very\u2019s RFP. In a first test of the technology, he used Alation to catalog a subset of Very\u2019s data held in an old Teradata database. It took about nine weeks to set up the infrastructure, make the connection to the database, and index and understand the metadata. Very is focusing on short sprints like this, rather than on monolithic 12-month projects that may not fit the business when finished.\n\n\u201cRun a pilot within nine weeks, prove it, prove the value, and then roll it forward into production is very much how we think about our full technology agenda,\u201d he says.\n\nPimblett hasn\u2019t yet catalogued all of Very\u2019s data, however. It\u2019s always going to be a work in progress. \u201cWe\u2019re picking off the highest potential value and highest risk areas,\u201d he says. \u201cWe\u2019ve done it in our financial services area, and some of our marketing area. Those tend to hold the biggest amount of our customer information.\u201d\n\nThe next step will be to roll it out across the whole company.\n\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got some massive systems that take time to index \u2014 not from a tech perspective, but from a data stewardship and understanding perspective,\u201d he says.\n\nValue, not vanity\n\nReflecting on things he might have done differently over the two years since he joined Very, Pimblett cautions against embarking on new technology projects for the sake of it and recommends always thinking about the desired outcome or action first.\n\nIf you don\u2019t, he says, \u201cthere'll be an occasion when you realize you didn't comply with your own principles and start with the action and outcome.\u201d In those situations, he says, you need to tell yourself: \u201cGet back to your strategy. You've thrown value away because you\u2019ve had a team working on a vanity project rather than creating business value.\n\nOne of the next value-creating projects to which Very will be applying its rich data legacy centers on loans: By the end of 2022, it will pilot a new personal finance business, offering its existing customer base loans of up to \u00a37,500 ($8,800) over one to five years.\n\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got a trusted brand and we\u2019ve just started to innovate based on our technology and data capabilities,\u201d he says.