Beginning a month-long focus on data visualization, the Forsta CEO talks to MrWeb's Nick Thomas about empathy, athletes, M&A, investing in tech, and 'seeing the future through mountains of data'. Available to read or watch.
Watch this interview in full at www.mrweb.com/drno/kyleferguson.htm . The following text version includes 90% of the content.
Kyle Ferguson joined Forsta as CEO in 2020 with over 20 years' experience in technology, banking and payments industries. Prior to joining Forsta he was Chief Executive at Fraedom, a global financial technology company, where he successfully led the company's sale to Visa Inc. in 2018. Prior to this he also served as Chief Commercial Officer and Managing Director at the company, and previously spent 11 years with American Express. Kyle is a seasoned executive with a track record of developing and leading high performing teams in the SaaS technology space, while supporting these businesses through necessary investment and growth stages.
KF: I consider myself lucky in terms of the experience and opportunity I had growing up in a middle-class environment in Toronto in the suburbs. My childhood was centered in family values. My parents created a space for my older sister and I so that we could learn, be curious and make mistakes along the way. It opened up opportunities for us, whether that was through sport, academia or travel and culture.
That creates a well-rounded view. But for me, I think the biggest thing I learned through my parents is empathy. As a leader today, I think it's one of the most important virtues: to understand what's going on within your organization. So, getting that dose at an early age, I think, has gone a long way in terms of shaping my career choices and getting me to where I am today.
I owe a lot to my family. We're very close, we spend lots of time together. Every opportunity I have to get back to Canada to go and see them, I certainly try and do so.
NT: What work did they do, your father and mother?
KF: My mum was a schoolteacher who later in her career turned into a guidance counsellor. She would come home every evening and share with me what was going on with some of the kids that she was mentoring. My father was an architect, so I'd be sitting there watching him constantly thinking, sketching and creating. The combination of the two, juxtaposed against one another, has been a real light in my life. I think about the bond they've forged - they're coming up on almost sixty years of marriage, so that gives you some sense of the environment I was exposed to, which was very helpful in shaping me.
NT: Lots of empathy and understanding - but was there any sense of steering or guiding you as to what you should do for a job?
KF: The guidance that I got from my parents is: 'choose the path that brings you the greatest joy and interest, and you can always learn from that'. No real steering, other than support, and when you're playing athletics or focused on academics - my family was incredibly supportive, driving me to practices and training - you name it.
Life on the Ice
I chose early on in life to pursue an athletic career at the same time as an academic one. I got into elite sport at a relatively early age and followed that path for a very long time. I was exposed to some incredibly strong leaders and coaches and mentors, and peer leaders. When you play elite sport, you're surrounded by the best of the best. Leadership and role playing - understanding your role for the common good - is absolutely critical to build high-performing winning teams.
NT: Which elite sport?
KF: Well, I'm Canadian, right? So it has to be ice hockey, of course. I played ice hockey fairly competitively into my twenties, and then realised one day that there's always someone bigger, faster and stronger, and therefore I might want to lean back on my academic choices.
NT: Do you get the big personalities in ice hockey that need a lot of management, as in many other sports?
KF: On every team, you've got different personalities. Knowing your role is critical because - a hockey analogy - you can't have twenty of the best goal scorers on a hockey team. You need people who can keep the puck out of the net, you need defenders and you need people who know how to set up plays and who can be more supportive. So, as they say, it takes a whole village to raise that child.
Before the pandemic, I had been approached by a company called Confirmit, looking for someone to help lead them in this next phase of their evolution. I'd had quite a bit of success previously in taking companies from growth stages and developing them into high-performance operating businesses, and bringing in talent, and developing talent from within, to make that happen. I had a track record of doing that in the fintech space. The thing that really intrigued me about the market research landscape and the experience landscape is not only the history, but also the technology itself, and the customer relationships.
This company, Forsta, has roots that go back almost thirty years. They were the pioneers and who effectively digitised traditional market research methods. That really interested me. Not only did they have, what I would say is, the best-in-class platform to serve both the research and the experience landscape, they also had some fantastic and phenomenal people to do that. But at this stage, like any company, they had to evolve because the market was evolving. So that's when I joined.
The one thing that I worked out very quickly when I joined Forsta a couple of years ago is that our customers and their customers - whether you're a market research agency or you're an enterprise brand - are all looking to do the same thing: to compete, to win, to create value for your customers, to reduce operational costs and drive efficiencies in your organization. And data doesn't do much unless it leads to some kind of action. This is why we've made the decisions that we've made over the last couple of years. Bringing Dapresy into the fold and joining forces with FocusVision, and later joining forces with Press Ganey. At the end of the day, if our clients can't benefit from the technology and the data that we're able to bring to them, then it doesn't really serve any purpose at all, does it?
Press Ganey (PG) is at the forefront of what we call patient experience and practitioner or care worker experience in the healthcare industry. They've got an incredibly strong market position in North America with over 41,000 clients - whether they're health systems, hospitals or surgery centers. If you're a patient in in North America and you've had to go and visit the doctor, or you've had to go to a hospital for surgery, you will have come into contact with PG at some point. We had also been working with them for a number of years as a strategic partner. They took our technology and white labelled it on behalf of their customers. So, bringing together these two big players in their respective industries made absolute sense for Pat Ryan, who is PG's CEO and Chairman.
Pat was actually one of the first people I met after the pandemic. The story I like to tell is that Forsta went through a number of mergers and acquisitions, and we evolved the business and changed ownership and brought in new investment, and we went through this complete transformation in less than eighteen months - but I hadn't met anyone actually in person throughout that entire time. Interestingly enough, the first person that I met in person here in London was Pat, because we saw an opportunity in our respective industries where we could join forces and catapult both our businesses into the next phase of evolution.
The combination gives PG access to best-in-class SaaS-based technology that will leapfrog them in their industry by three to five years. On the Forsta side, we're getting access to operational scale and leverage and investment that will accelerate our strategy and the plans we already have. In less than the six months since we announced that to the marketplace, we've acquired HelloIgnite, a crowdsourcing firm; and a company called Rio SEO that is at the forefront of what we call local experience: the first thing you do when you're trying to work out what services or products you're going to buy is to go online and run a search.
Looking at HelloIgnite: we had been using this crowdsourcing tool, internally for some time now, and it became obvious to us that this was a capability that our customers would love. We were using it to crowdsource innovative ideas across our entire company population - at that time 800-900 people. Within a global organization like Forsta, where we're not able to meet up like we used to as a result of the pandemic, having a tool that is able to synthesise and succinctly draw down on great ideas, to be able to vote them up and then take those ideas and turn them into action and stories for our technology teams to put into the product road map... that was revolutionary for us.
We've also upgraded one of our qualitative tools, a tool called InterVu, running focus groups and projects through the cloud to help our customers where things have shifted post-pandemic, especially in the qualitative space. And we've launched our digital diaries mobile app, which is a tool that helps our customers run ethnography and understand what's happening with the products and services of their respective customers in that lifecycle, and that journey.
And then, most importantly, the uniqueness and robustness of our platform means we can now white label both customer experience and employee experience tools for our partner and customer agencies, so they can go out there and offer those to their respective customers.
So, in this combined company, you now have Press Ganey, which is really the driving force in the healthcare world globally, and then you've got Forsta, which will continue to service market research as well as commercial and enterprise brands across insurance, technology and finance and so on. The combined scale, and what I would call operating leverage, in this company is unparalleled in our industry.
NT: Does being bought by a healthcare specialist mean that the balance will be changing between the sectors you're working in?
KF: No. [Forsta is] getting access to greater investment scale, so that we can continue to drive growth in [all] the commercial verticals that we service, and, most importantly, market research. I'm going to continue to lead the charge of the Forsta business, and my colleague Darren Dworkin, who is now leading the healthcare side [PG] - we both have a mandate to grow our respective lines of business. The only way we're going to do that is by using this shared human experience platform and to continue to invest in that.
Investing in Tech
We make big bets in terms of bringing on new engineers. In the last six months alone, we brought 100 new developers into the Forsta organization. We're going to continue to make big investments like that. But it is a finite amount, and like any technology business, whether you're Google or whoever, you have to be very smart about how you prioritise. You do that by effectively seeing the wood from the trees, because there are a million things that you could be doing. You could be servicing technical debt, you could be building on the platform itself, you could be bringing new features and functions to differentiate. The most important thing is to look at what you are. You've got to stay true to what your vision is, what your mission is, and how are you going to line up your resources and your assets behind that so you get the best bang for buck - so that your customers can benefit from the decisions you make. That's really, really critical.
Data Viz and SmartHub
We're really excited that we've been able to integrate all of the different data collection assets we got through acquisitions and mergers onto what we call a SmartHub - our version of a data lake or data repository. Again, very unique in the space where we operate. I like to say things like 'all roads lead to SmartHub'. Why? It doesn't matter whether you're a patient, an agency, a brand - what you're trying to do is get a 360-degree view of your respective industry, your customers and your people, all into one single platform. So we're spending a lot of time and energy integrating through API and connectors into SmartHub, so that we're able to then take that data, turn it into a story and visualise it. Thanks to the acquisition of Dapresy, we're able to showcase all this data - across employees, across customers, across patients, across industries - in one centralised place, and synthesize that into stories so that customers can make decisions, drive action and change the trajectory of their respective businesses.
To me, data visualization is a core tenet and focus for our business, and one of the reasons why we brought Dapresy into the fold and made this a significant player in our strategy. We continue to invest in this because I firmly believe that data visualization is the calling card to getting companies and people to act. When you're trying to synthesise millions and millions of data points - again, no matter what your data collection method is, whether it's a focus group in the cloud or in a facility, or you're trying to run a survey in a particular region or country or demographic, or you're trying to collect data straight through social listening or through off-line methods - if you can't take that data point, humanise it in some way or another to try and drive an action, it doesn't really have much value, does it? That's where data visualization can absolutely help, and why we're placing a lot of emphasis on what we're doing.
We help customers with their journey maps. We will sit down with them and say, 'Okay, what is it you're trying to achieve, what is the ideal journey that you want your customers to take?' And then we will actually overlay an infographic or picture of what that journey looks like, with all the key data points, so that for leaders like me when I'm walking into my next board meeting, I can then bring that up on screen or hand that out and immediately have the impact. It allows you to draw your attention to the moments that matter and the key metrics that will ultimately help you make decisions to drive different business outcomes. Data visualization is a critical element making that happen.
2-3 Years in the Future?
KF: We're hearing a lot about AI, machine learning and NLP, right? And if I think about the investments that we've made and joining forces with Press Ganey, and the journey that we've been on over the last couple of years, we've also been making big bets and big investments in those areas through the different acquisitions. So we're already on the forefront, whether it's text analytics or running machine learning to help our customers, driving efficiencies in terms of survey creation and those processes. Where I think this will ultimately end up is in a world where you're going to be able to determine outcomes before they even happen. You will see the signs that matter, before the event actually happens, through mountains of data. But again, you can only use these technologies if you have all this data in one single place. So that's why it's so important that we put such an emphasis on bringing that together through SmartHub. And we will continue to do that in the future.
KF: Based on trial and error and successes and failures over the course of my career, I've got a pretty simple mantra. I brought this to the Forsta organization a couple of years ago - in fact apparently, they've printed up T-shirts out of it. It's pretty simple, right:
Turn up on time, work hard, and don't be a jerk.
Let me unpack that for you a little bit.
Turning up on time: what that really means is 'be ahead of the curve, be proactive, go and seek information now. Go and learn a new skill. Try and understand the next move. Make it easier on your boss by doing the work in advance.' That's something that, again, I've learned through trial and error.
Work hard: I mean, it's not a revolutionary concept, is it? But certainly, in my experience, those individuals who have progressed their careers, if that's what they want to do, have tended to put in the extra effort and to really work hard. To me, it's a bit of a no-brainer.
The last one, which probably is the most important one: Don't be a jerk. What I really mean by that is, 'stick to your values, to your core.' It's one of the things that we're very, very passionate about here at Forsta. We have a set of values, and it starts from the top down. It's about leading by example, and it's about exhibiting values such as empathy and understanding, what's going on with the people that you're working with, getting to the depth. Everyone has lives inside and outside of work, and so trying to understand a bit more about what makes people tick - you'll get more out of them in doing that. I think there's a way that you can do it and conduct yourself in a very respectful way. You will get more in return.
NT: (laughing) It sounds like a tough motto... do you ever actually point to it on the wall and say 'Don't be a jerk!' to people?
KF: Well, you know, we published our values, and we take great efforts to ensure that we are walking the walk. We hold each of us accountable in internal meetings, online. Making sure that we're all subscribing, and we all agree that these are the things that we're going to sign up for, I think is really important, and it's been intrinsic to the success of the Forsta organization in a very short period of time. It's based on everyone stepping up and being willing to do what it takes in order to make that happen. 
All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.