This month I met with Emma Beaumont, Managing Director of SSON to talk about the growth of this exciting space and how data analytics, a commitment to excellence and sheer hard work have made SSON the market leading information provider in the Shared Services and Outsourcing space.
Good morning Emma and thanks for taking some time out to chat with me. To start off I wondered if you could briefly tell me what SSON stands for?
SSON, or the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network to use its full name, is a 21 year old division of IQPC with 130K members worldwide. That makes it both the largest and oldest community of Shared Services and Outsourcing professionals in the world.
A core focus of SSON is the delivery of exceptional conferences and I think it would be accurate to say that SSON is the market leader in this space. Why do you think that is and how have you managed to achieve this?
Undoubtedly SSON is home to the largest, and frankly most well known conferences in this space, which by itself is often considered to be the ultimate benchmark of market leadership. I would counter that view and say that whilst size and brand awareness do matter, a true representation of market leadership is so much more. To my mind, our continued growth and success really boils down to the quality associated with the onsite delivery of those events. We take the customer experience extremely seriously, that means every event needs to deliver both excellent networking opportunities and value-added content that gets right to the heart of our members challenges. To achieve this we operate under some fairly strict internal policies around factors such as minimum ratio of practitioners to vendors onsite, and of course our famously vehement stance on no onstage sales pitching. We reserve the main stage for pure-play content discussions and that’s how many executives justify taking the time out from their busy schedules to attend.
But SSON is also much more than just an events brand, it’s a community. Can you tell me a little about some of the initiatives that support that community build?
We like to reinvest our success back into our members experience whenever we can . One great example was the launch of our online practitioner forum (Shared Intelligence) last year. Members told us they needed somewhere private to be able to message/connect with each other and share tips and trade questions away from the vendor community.. so we built them a platform and it’s now available for free to any practitioner who attends an SSO event. GBS Elite is another great example – it caters for literally just a very small % of our members who run GBS organizations globally and needed a small closed-shop environment to meet and talk only with others in the same role.
In 2015 SSON took its first steps in the Analytics world, how and why did this come about? What value does analytics add into the SSON portfolio?
I moved form our London HQ to Asia in 2014 (a nod to the large growth in Shared Services activity and the recent maturity growth spurt the APAC region has been experiencing). Singapore has been attracting a lot of data analytics activity for the last few years, and so we undertook a feasibility study and decided to open SSON’s first global data analytics center here. We also pitched the Singapore government for a grant to help towards the cost (which we were awarded) but largely this whole exercise has been funded by our very forward-thinking CEO.
It’s very early days to actually start quantifying value for the portfolio, and I’m not sure the full value will ever be completely trackable, but every day I come across customer feedback that reassures me we have set ourselves light years ahead of the competition by accessing this data and unveiling these previously unknown industry insights. The biggest eye-opener for me has been the number of big shop consultancies and thought leaders who have engaged SSON Analytics to help them find answers that their own data couldn’t answer. We are even undertaking a climate risk data project with NASA as our data is helping them to understand how weather patterns can help with predicting BCP in the US. It took over a year to consolidate the proprietary data from all IQPC offices around the world so we’ve only just started to offer the data services commercially to the world. Time will tell, but I’m optimistic that we are offering the world something that no-one else in this space seems to be able to..
It seems like it’s quite a different business to events, do you need a different profile of skills in the team?
Yes and no. Half of the SSON Analytics team have a technical background (developers, web crawlers, data scientists and solution architects) and these roles were very different to any I had previously needed to hire for IQPC. The other half, the “business” team focus on analyzing the insights coming out of the data, reading between the lines, finding the “story” and then marketing that information to the members. The skills in this part of the data centre are much more akin to marketing and production skills that we see elsewhere across IQPC offices.
(Click here to read more about our SSON Analytics journey)
And had this changed the culture from a standard IQPC office?
Yes, It couldn’t not really as we’re a small team, essentially running a start-up company (albeit with strong parent backing) and that means everyone has to pull together on daily projects to meet our ultimate goal. There is a high level of brainstorming needed all the time as we are constantly being asked new data questions the market wants answers to. We rely a lot on the team to find new data sources and solutions to every day data challenges. Creative thinking and initiative are pretty much musts! In that sense we operate very much like an IQPC event team does. I think the biggest difference is that we have to think on our feet constantly and need to operate on much faster turnarounds to come up with the goods for the customer. If you think IQPC runs at a fast pace (and it does) then the data centre is possibly a sprint by comparison.
So what is the vision for the future? What would you like SSON to achieve in the next few years? Are there opportunities for growth?
Ultimately true success for DART (SSON’s data centre) looks like 3 things: 1. A stand alone, profitable business that financially supports itself on its own revenue channels. 2. Driving recognized, track-able, fiscal value to IQPC’s other channels (events and digital portals) 3. Industry acknowledgement that we are now not just a network and events organisation but a true research house driving content into the industry that the market benchmarks against. (For me this last point will have been achieved the day our phone rings and a competitive event organizer asks SSON to present our research on their stage…. watch this space.)
Do you think SSON’s journey is indicative of where the conference industry as a whole is heading?
I think the conference industry as a whole is evolving at an extremely rapid pace, and sitting back and operating BAU is simply not an option anymore to stay ahead of the game. IQPC is very fortunate to have a CEO and board that recognize that, and one that is willing and happy to invest in necessary support functions (such as digital portals and analytics centres) that frankly are necessary to survive the tremendous digital shift this industry is undergoing. Networking events will always play an important role in customers needs, but critically the success of those events will need to be supported by a digital, data-driven framework to enhance and elongate the customer experience. Ten years from now, or possibly even five, my best guess is that the event companies at front of the race, will be those that have morphed to become research houses with multiple digital channels. Home not just to customers databases but real, industry analytics which feed rich, unrivaled content into their conference programmes and f2f agendas, keeping them not just a relevant source of info to their market, but an essential one.
Now can you tell me a little bit about yourself, how long have you worked for SSON and IQPC? What has your career journey been like?
Almost 14 years. After finishing my law degree the only thing I knew was that I definitely didn’t want to be a lawyer.. The reason I’ve stayed so long is the fact the job has kept changing and growing and the opportunities to drive new strategies and idea really are supported here, and not just paid lip service. I cant imagine this level of autonomy existing inside many other companies in the world. IQPC has to be very rare in that sense.
And what do you love about your job and the company?
The people. Both internally and externally. Outside of SSON the world of Shared services is very incestuous.. truly everyone knows everyone and I have come to love working with these very passionate and clever bunch! I rarely attend a conference and come back with anything less than 3 very solid ideas I want to implement inside our own business.. That proves how smart our members are. I blatantly copy their strategies everyday! Internally, there is a core group of IQPC leaders around the world (they know who they are) who have helped me to grow and develop the confidence and skill set I have today as a person and as a business woman. I am truly grateful to have colleagues and mentors like this around me to learn from and bounce ideas off. This sort of genuine support structure in an employee environment is something that I not only value, but have come to treasure over the years.
When you first joined IQPC, did you ever imagine this is where you would be now?
In short, No! I can honestly say I had zero idea where this job would lead when I took it. I liked the sound of a production role and it sounded more fun than being a lawyer.. I also wanted a job where I got to travel the world a bit. I guess that last one gets a massive tick too thinking about it.
Finally what advice would you give to people looking to start a career in either events or analytics?
Get to know your topic. Read everything. Make at least one new industry connection every day (at least one f2f per week). Make it your business to know everyone who is recognized as an influencer in your space and more importantly make sure THEY KNOW YOU. Listen. Take notes and get to the facts as fast as you can. The hand that holds the data rules the world.. Above all else, take yourself and your own career seriously. If you don’t, you can be absolutely sure no-one else will.
Thanks Emma, an absolute pleasure as always!