When TORCH was launched, the UK was in the first weeks of the original lockdown. The environment and ecosystem that it was conceived in and designed to service was at the start of massive upheaval.
Conceived as a business advisory service by The Data Lab, TORCH was created to help organisations make better use of their data. Whether this was through better data gathering, storage, processing, analysis, or implementing AI projects, TORCH aimed to link customers with partners to help meet their needs.
Just under a year later, the world is a very different place. The planet has adapted to a global threat on a scale unseen in a century. Economies are reeling, political structures shaken, but hopes still remain of not just a return to normalcy, but creating a more efficient and resilient system.
As such, TORCH not only adapted to the disruptions caused by the pandemic but also helped others adapt.
DIGIT spoke with TORCH Service Owner and Principal Solutions Architect Rhona MacLennan about how the initiative navigated 2020 while helping meet the demand for data-driven projects.
Funded by Scottish Enterprise and the University of Edinburgh, TORCH was originally conceived by the Data Lab in 2017 based on feedback from companies looking to start or develop data-driven projects. Many lacked the knowledge or skills needed or even knew how to start their projects.
“On the other side, there was feedback coming from the data technology suppliers that they were spending a lot of time and presales almost educating potential customers on what they really needed, rather than what they thought they needed,” MacLennan said.
Launched in April, TORCH supports its clients by acting as a critical, unbiased friend, supporting clients through the early stages of their first project before introducing them to suppliers in the TORCH supplier network.
“It’s about finding the right partners in the supplier side to make that happen,” she said. “There are lots of ways of doing it, but it relies on the expertise that we knew was available in the Scottish base supplier.”
With more than 40 companies in its supplier network, from the big three cloud providers down to individual consultants, TORCH has access to experts for every need. The vast majority have a base in Scotland.
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Despite the disruptions over 2020, TORCH saw initial success over several projects. “We’ve managed to do a good number of projects already this year, probably starting slightly slowly just because the timing was so off,” she noted.
“In 2020, we did 11 projects, and we’ve kicked off another two already in January this year, across 10 or 11 different industries supported by organisations from a range of areas and provided 20 introductions into the supply chain.
“The four team members all joined TORCH working remotely and despite never having met each other in person have gelled extremely well and delivered some fantastic projects for our customers,” she added.
These projects were delivered despite the difficulties lockdown created. Social distancing measures meant that face to face meetings or site visits became impossible almost overnight.
“But what we found was video calls allowed flexibility for everybody, so we’ve been able to do more with less. We’ve been able to deliver more projects than we should have been able to and planned to do with our resources.”
With old ways of working no longer possible, the search was on for new techniques. And for many companies, digital and data projects offered them the flexibility they needed. But for TORCH, changing needs meant changing its expectations.
“We thought there would be larger projects where we engaged for 15-20 days with the company. Instead, we tend to do short-term engagements of maybe four to six days to set a roadmap and help the company understand what it is they’re trying to do and introduce them to relevant suppliers.”
For many companies, getting started on their data journey can be daunting. Even taking the first step can be difficult when companies are unaware of the options available to them. In many cases, there are misconceptions about the cost and difficulty of implementing data projects.
“Having worked for such a long time in IT, I see how far back some organisations are in their use of data technology,” MacLennan said. “People don’t really know what the tech out there could do for them and don’t leverage things that could make their life so much easier.
“The reality is that the technology is almost the easy bit now,” she said. “So often, the change aspect is the culture and the people and the processes and not really about the technology.”
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Even before the coronavirus, many companies lacked not only the skills needed to implement data projects but also an understanding of how to do so. What might, even a decade ago, have taken months, considerable funds and dedicated in-house staff can now be achieved quickly, cheaply and without the same number of permanent staff through numerous cloud-based services.
“Now, in a lot of cases, you can try things for free or for a very low cost. And you can do it in such a way that you can move to something more appropriate as you grow,” MacLennan said.
Sometimes, companies were tempted to try and implement a project in one go, focusing on the goal and not the journey.
“Lots of businesses are either starting off or in a position where they know that they want to grow. We can show them roadmaps, how to develop, what the technology options out there are the types of skills and knowledge they need.
“It’s finding the match for the skills they have in their companies, the skills they need in their company, and what they should be buying as services from partners.”
For TORCH’s clients, there are two factors in going ahead with a project. One is time and the other is money. “Some have time to do it just now because their actual normal business isn’t happening,” MacLennan said.
“But because they’ve not been able to trade for a long time, they don’t have the funds available to move forward. So we are looking at ways where we can try and help – our funding partners Scottish Enterprise are very supportive of us being flexible in our approach.”
To help reach companies that are pressed for funding, TORCH is currently producing a series of playbooks as a short-term resource.
These are simple guides so that companies unable to work with TORCH, can still get some guidance on how to get started with data projects or cloud services.
While companies have time, individuals are a different matter. With many organisations forced to make staffing cuts, personnel can find themselves hard-pressed managing their current workload. Developing data projects will just add to that.
“Sometimes, it’s not that companies don’t want to change, it’s just that they have people who are doing multiple roles within a smaller organisation. And they’re so fully loaded just keeping the business running, they can’t carve out the time to do something differently.
“So part of how we try and structure projects is to make the most of the time we have with the companies and focus on how we can make executing the project as easy as possible – what are the real blockers to stop them.”
With a stated aim to speed up data-driven innovation and change, in many ways TORCH has seen that happen on its own. However, questions still exist over whether the rate of digital transformation can be sustained, or whether companies will fall back into old ways once the crisis is averted.
“I do genuinely believe that the acceleration might not keep going at the same rate,” MacLennan said. “But we’re on a path now that will continue for most companies.”
“Once you start using these technologies, certainly on the data side, there’s a lot of talk about what can you do with AI in your business? What can you do with data science? What can you do with advanced analytics?
“You can only really do that if you have the data.”