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Executive Insight: Guy Laurence

the rundown

Guy Laurence, CEO of Vodafone UK, knows a thing or two about information overload. Feeling stressed out by statistics? He has the cure for data impotence.

A few seconds after midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2010. Numbers start flying across a bank of screens in a large darkened room. London: 1,170,000; Glasgow: 115,000; Manchester: 75,000; Leeds: 70,000… The numbers scroll on as the black-clad tech team look for signs that the system might not be able to cope.

It could be a scene from futurist cult film Minority Report, but the room is actually a real one — at Vodafone’s state-of-the-art Network Operations Centre in Newbury, Berkshire — and the figures represent the number of texts sent in the first 30 minutes of 2011. This is pure data in action.

The man responsible for this scene is obsessed with data — because of what the numbers can help him do, rather than with the ones and zeros themselves. “I don’t have a relationship with numbers, I have a relationship with customers,” says Guy Laurence, the 49-year-old who took over as CEO of Vodafone UK in 2009. “I focus totally on human responses to things; if you smack someone in the face, what would they do? If you kiss them on the cheek, what would they do?”

Laurence took over a company widely seen as stagnating in third place in the UK’s competitive mobile market. Today, Vodafone is viewed as a powerful success story, with more than 19 million customers across the country. When you’ve got that many customers, the big question is: how do you industrialise something that works for each one? “You can always kiss one customer on the cheek — but how do you kiss 19 million customers on the cheek?” he asks.

Laurence carries only a few numbers in his head: his company’s ‘net promoter score’ (which tells him exactly how well Vodafone is really doing with its customers) and the competition’s market revenue share. “When you run a £5 billion company you can’t avoid numbers — but if you start with numbers you’ll never innovate,” he says. “You have to take the action you think will work and the numbers follow.”

Even when he’s about to fly off with his family to live rough in the Masai Mara for a week, for Laurence, it’s all about focus. He left school with one grade E A-level, having fluffed his exams by setting up a candle-making business after he realised that “making money was much more fun”. It’s a pattern repeated when he quit his degree to work for independent music publisher Chrysalis. Eventually he became head of distribution and marketing outside America at MGM. His job was to work out which markets a product would work in.

He will tell you, for instance, that a baseball movie will only work outside the US if it’s shown in Japan. He worked on the Bond films, including GoldenEye, selling them to reluctant cinema owners who hadn’t screened anything from the franchise in six years. “The last film had been [classified as] a 15. Therefore anyone under 21 had never seen a Bond film in a cinema.” So MGM made it cool — selling the film to teenagers, dads and mums simultaneously with targeted campaigns that fuelled interest.

As Laurence explains, it’s all about making the data work. “I triangulate an objective assessment of the new technologies coming in, a subjective assessment of the public’s reaction to new propositions, and then I take a punt.” This ‘triangulation’ is the combination of hardheaded data analysis, coupled with business nous. Data is something that informs his hunches — but never rules them.

Setting up the £5 million Network Operations Centre (NOC) in Newbury was the first expression of this approach at Vodafone. “It’s very difficult to touch and feel a network,” he says, “but at the NOC we absolutely live and breathe data in real time.” Managing 90 million calls and 80 million texts on an average day is a tricky business; a typical 24 hours sees Vodafone carry 45 terabytes of data, equivalent to 11.25 million music tracks.

Vodafone’s approach is to use data to manage demand before things happen. The company’s plans for the Royal wedding in April include adding extra temporary base stations to cope with heavy network usage. When Take That tickets went on sale just before Christmas and the band’s official website crashed due to demand, Vodafone was prepared for the surge of fans texting one another to check whether they’d got their tickets.

One of the walls at Vodafone’s operations centre shows connections to 217 countries to monitor how much traffic is coming in from abroad in real time. The data shows that different cultures are ‘asymmetric’, says Laurence. “You can see Polish mothers are texting their sons over here to see if they’re okay, but the sons are not texting back,” he says. “But the French are almost symmetrical — so as the texts go out, the replies come back in. As situations unfold in real time in Egypt or Bahrain we can see how that affects the network, too.”

Even a bill being sent by email triggers a whole chain of data events: customer gets bill, most open it; some have a query and call the centre. Forty thousand bills go out an hour but if the centre gets hit with too many queries, billings are dialled down to reduce calls in. It’s about fighting the data overload.

And we are truly overloaded by data. Governments around the world are unleashing a tsunami of numbers on their citizens. That has huge implications for big businesses with lucrative government contracts. In the UK, the government recently published every item of public spending over £25,000. Search the database for ‘Vodafone’ and you get 2,448 individual transactions covering millions of pounds. Information that companies once believed was commercially confidential is now routinely published — or leaked to websites like Wikileaks.

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Laurence says he is ‘relaxed’ about increased demands for transparency. “Companies will become more transparent as a necessity — customers now see that as an essential part of the trust equation.” The bigger impact may come from the technology that is making access to this data a mobile phenomenon. “This industry is de-linking access to data from physical location,” he says. In a world where shoppers can check out the competition’s prices while they’re in your store, keeping control of data is no longer an option.

But for now, managing the information out there is the priority. Access to information was once the big problem, says Laurence. Then it quickly flipped, through technology, to data overload. “We were brought up to believe more data was good, and that’s no longer true,” he argues.

Laurence refuses to read reports from his product managers with more than five of the vital key performance indicators on them. “The amount of data is obscene. The managers that are going to be successful are going to be the ones who are prepared to take a knife to the amount of data… Otherwise, it’s like a virus.

“Where did it all go wrong?” he continues. “My kids weren’t taught that huge volumes of data were great. Was there a university professor who stood up and said, ‘If you have over 100 indicators you’re a good boy’? Because whoever that professor is, we need to shoot him.”

Laurence has just won a wager with his team over the number of Vodafone VIP members who bought tickets for concerts. His team, based on the data, bet on one number. Their boss, based on what he knows about people, thought it would be higher. Data plus hunch equals a powerful combination. Or, as Laurence concludes: “Data on its own is impotent.”

"I don’t have a relationship with numbers, I have a relationship with customers."