The year everything had to change…including us

Alistair Sergeant
Alistair Sergeant

How we expanded into being a digital consultancy when the world had to stop working.

Many CEO’s will talk about new products and services their business is launching in a very marketing specific way. I want to give you an honest insight into how we expanded our business with a new vision in a year where nothing was predictable.

My hope is that somebody can be inspired to use this story in creating their own digital offering.

So, like every business regardless of size or industry, during 2020 we had to change our ways of working and really look to see if what we were offering was relevant to our market. Being a business and technology transformation consultancy was more relevant than ever, but it was going to be a lot tougher. Whilst pipeline and sales were OK, it was taking a lot longer to deliver projects as Clients tried to navigate their way through the pandemic.

As CEO, I had to look at what could change. How could we make our offering more compelling; how can we meet those unmet needs and support clients more effectively now and in the future.


What could we do differently?

Like many of us, 2020 gave me more time to focus on some key hobbies during lockdown, specifically for me was cycling. I am very lucky to live right next to the countryside and so a couple of hours out on the bike each day was a great way to pause the day to day and start thinking about what we could do differently.

As a techie at heart, I have always been passionate about how to create new products and services using technology in the right way and I knew this is where I had to focus. The consultancy side of the business was growing, but if we really wanted to deliver value back to clients and drive value to our business, we needed a digital play that was a tangible product people can buy into.


The bike ride that it all made sense.

One sunny day, whilst out on my bike, I was lost in thought on how my company could really start to add value.

It was during this bike ride that the ideas around what we could do with the tech that we have been advising on came to me. It was exciting, creative and I could clearly see a clear vision on how to make it real.

So, we decided to start building our own bot offering. I did not want to go off-piste and build something revolutionary that was for a market we did not have experience in.

If this was going to work, we needed to come up with an offering for the unmet needs of our current target sectors but more importantly we had to use the skill set we had in house to get us there.

That is the key, let’s build an offering that has transferable skills from our existing consulting team that would resonate with the unmet needs of our clients.

We had been playing with new technology over the last few years, specifically around Robotics Process Automation, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain but only really in an advisory capacity.

That was all about to change… we were about to expand into a digital consultancy.


Getting the team on board

One of the many traits I have is coming up with ideas, lots of ideas! It is honestly the best part of my job to be able to have that creative freedom and I am passionate about this being part of our culture.

Now if I am honest, not all my ideas are great but that’s part of the fun. So how was I going to make this different?

I needed to get my team to buy into the idea. Our question everything mentality means we are very good at constructively challenging each other and not accepting what is in front of us at face value, and again I am very lucky to have a team tell me directly what’s good and what is not! The great news, they loved it! The idea of combining our consultancy skills and building a digital practice. I won’t name who, but certain individuals got very excited about the thought of mapping out lots of business processes!

The next challenge was convincing the chairman. Those of you who have met our chairman Paul Forrest will know that there is not much this guy does not know, and he will quite happily (in a constructive way of course) tell you exactly what he thinks. Luckily for me, Paul is also a creative guy and was immediately on board with the vision and agreed it was a goer for us to pursue.

Now with the teams buy in, we had to invest in two main things now – training and allocating peoples time to this initiative! We did both with relative ease, the vision was clear enough to allow us.


Where can we add value?

To make sure this did not end up as just an idea, we dedicated project time to build out the business plan to focus on what this would look like.

With the mantra of not going off-piste at this point and keeping to what we know we decided to focus on Higher Education. Right now, given our insight and experience within Higher Education, we knew we should only be focusing on two things:

  • Student Experience
  • Operational efficiency

Digging into this insight we had to think about what are the common themes and challenges that HE institutes face? Where do we know the student is not being considered enough due to limitations on “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or poorly implemented software.

Knowing the HE industry was crippled with technology debt, unable to make change quickly and predominantly resistant to large transformation programs we focused on how we can deliver immediate value without large investments or projects that expand for years.

And that is where we built our Student Experience bot focusing on Higher Education repeatable processes like Admissions, Recruitment, Clearing, Student Services etc.


Taking the Vapourware to reality

“Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”
Then comes the hard work. How do we take the bike ride idea to a reality?

This was no small task. Asking an institute to take on a new project is tough, asking them to help out with a vapourware idea and put together a POC is unlikely, asking them to do this during a pandemic, that’s high hopes!

But we believed we had something here and that was not going to stop us.

Now we had to reach out to some friends. Luckily enough, we have several institutes that we work closely with who very kindly agreed to come on the journey with us. Turns out saving money and improving the student experience without changing any core systems seems to ring some bells.


It’s become a reality.

We worked with these institutes to build out a list of business processes that happen throughout the year that were high intensity, highly complex, required heavy manual work but delivered huge value to the institute and students.

We narrowed it down to 43. This was the point we realised we had our offering. We could automate these processes and on average return a confident 240% ROI on the investment within 12 – 36 months.

“More importantly we created a platform that doesn’t require you to change any core business system”. – Testing the market

The problem with asking your friends their opinion, you’re always concerned they just tell you what you want to hear. If this was going to work, we needed to speak with other institutes, those that had not heard of us and had no preconceptions but were open to doing something different.

Introducing Niico


Now with a clearer strategy in mind, we renamed the product from Student X to Niico-SX. We gave Niico its own persona, so it became part of the team.

This was important, nobody should feel threatened by technology advances, Niico is there to be part of the team and take the robot out of the human so they can focus on student value services.

“we’re the first ever industry product for Higher Education that enables intelligent automation”.

As we now start 2021, we are now looking how we continue to develop the product further to make it as much “out of the box” as possible.

Our higher education expertise allowed us to optimise standard business process within an institute whilst ensuring flexibility to allow each customer to configure specific areas of their institute. So far, whilst the 43 product services mentioned previously include key and low value tasks, we are now taking this to the next stage including:

  • Clearing
  • Recruitment
  • Scholarships, bursaries, and processing awards
  • Student transfers
  • Data capture and transfer between systems

And of course, we welcome suggestions from the industry on where automation within the student journey can add value so continue to evolve and develop.


In closing…

If 2020 taught us anything, we needed to be creative and relevant yes, but we also needed fun along the way and boy have we had fun getting to this part.

When I started Equantiis, I always knew we would be able to build something more than just a consultancy.

Our services are wrapped around digital technology. This is not a scary evolution or what it once felt like a minority report but now here in action!

As we start to bring more institutes onto Niico, we will continue to develop the product using our industry knowledge and real-life scenarios.

Whilst we did something different in 2020, we hope now that we can continue to help other institutes challenge themselves and do something different.

I hope you find inspiration from this story to either a) take that idea and give it a go or b) join us on our journey to improve Higher Education.

As I write this story it really excites me on where we go with this and the best part is…we have only just started.

More Information on Niico-SX


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More about the author

Alistair Sergeant
Alistair Sergeant CEO

As CEO of Equantiis, his main focus is on strategic leadership and growth within the business whilst working through new opportunities that support this. Alistair manages client relationships so that they can benefit from his experience and knowledge. He thrives on leading a disruptive business that works with business leaders to identify and overcome complex business challenges, with cost certainty and transformative outcomes. Alistair is passionate about anything outdoors. Including running, camping and travelling with the family.

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