Stéphane Delysee: How AFNOR Found Success with Neo4j’s Innovation Lab

AFNOR and the Innovation Lab
We’re delighted to share with you this conversation between Stefan Wendin, Neo4j’s Global Head of Business Design & Strategic Programs (and steward of our Innovation Lab), and Stéphane Delysse, Head of IT Business and Data Analysts Team at AFNOR Group.

These two have built a strong and lasting relationship through their work on all things graphs, and had a particularly salient moment when Stephane and his team at AFNOR joined Stefan in the Innovation Lab. Read up on what transpired and learn more about how connected data makes their worlds go ‘round.

Who Is Stéphane Delysse?

Stefan Wendin: A year ago in the middle of this pandemic, we did something pretty cool here at Neo. We got together and innovated with graphs in a full remote setting, exploring international standards to find valuable insights. At least, that’s something completely new for me. And so with this, I have none other than Stéphane from AFNOR, and I’m super happy that you could join me. You know me, I love learning new things, and this was, for sure, a new topic to look at through a lens of the graphic glasses.

So, welcome to the call, Stéphane. Who are you, and can you tell me a little bit about the topic?

Stéphane Delysse: I work for AFNOR. My name is also Stéphane, and I am in charge in the IT department of the business analyst team and also of the data team. So on this side, we have the data analysts, data scientists, and we work with different kinds of databases, and we are exploring now with you the side of the graph databases.

Stefan Wendin: Cool. So yeah, let’s uncover the magic within relations and make sense of data, basically, in that sense. Very often we have a lot of data, but I think for me, one of the big powers is when it comes together, when it’s connected, and we can do multiple… traverse or kind of make sense of it.

Stéphane Delysse: Yes. For the standards, we experiment your technology on these standards, so they are kind of a specification, technical specifications. And with this lab, it was the opportunity to explore this text and to find some inputs and some interesting subjects we couldn’t find easily with a human approach.

Stefan Wendin: Cool and super interesting. So of course, what are standards on a high level, why are they important, for the one that doesn’t know? I mean, you taught me all about this, so I’m a professional, I feel, almost now. But before joining, I was kind of a novice, not knowing very much about it.

Stéphane Delysse: In my company, we’re always looking for new work items and obviously, searching these new work items, we have to be aware of what is already done in the international work of the standards. So we have to get a clear view of all the subjects in a field to find out which fields are not covered yet.

So this global view of all the subjects in a field of the standards – it’s not easy using this human approach, and so that was the challenge.

Stefan Wendin: Super nice. That’s a great challenge, and we look on the longer type of horizon in the industry of standardization. Let’s say 10 years – how would that kind of evolve? What would be the biggest challenge in that, and how do you see graphs being part of that journey?

How Does AFNOR Use Graph Technology?

Stéphane Delysse: Graphs allow you to get this broad view of all the standards, how they are connected between them. Because very often, a standard refers to another one or replaces another one, and these standards are categorized. As the world evolves very quickly, this categorization can evolve also. So we have to always refine these links between the standards.

Stefan Wendin: Yeah, I can totally see this. A lot of people talk about disruption in different segments, but this will, of course, also be disrupted when a specific domain changes, standardizations changes. And if we change the way we look upon things and act, of course, these will also kind of change as we go along. I can totally see how this is a graph with a graph with a graph with a graph. It’s kind of like this big knowledge graph of standards, or this kind of semantics.

And I guess that’s how we started as well. We always say at Neo that graphs are everywhere. We believe that the world is kind of a network. And for us, graphs allow us to understand the complexity and the context of that network. And for me, I still remember my graph epiphany moment when I saw that, wow, graphs are everywhere. Did you have any such a moment? So when did the graph lights come on in your story? That would be interesting to hear.

Stéphane Delysse: Yes, indeed because we have so many datasets and coming from the standardization at the international level, coming from the people working here in the company, and coming from some new tools, for example… Each standard now is analyzed by a semantic tool – it will analyze each word and the relation between the word, et cetera. And for example, as I mentioned, standards are specifications, so we try to identify in this specification the requirements the company has to apply when they want to apply the standards.

So all this information, when you put it in a graph, you can get new information and you can better understand what the relations are between all the standards and which are well-covered, and which are not well covered. And what will be, for example, the new subjects that you will have to address in the future. So when you see the graph, it’s kind of… it’s very magic.

Stefan Wendin: When it all connects, then there’s this kind of clicking moment, right? It goes like, “Wow.” But also that is something we spend a lot of time doing together, because I always say it doesn’t matter if only one part of the organization kind of gets it, because everybody needs to have that epiphany moment. And sometimes, it’s hard to explain, and so we decided to do something that we call an Innovation Lab together, basically getting together for a week, starting at 8:30 a.m., and working through this.

What were your challenges explaining or aligning this from a business perspective – or a business to business, I think it was in our case, right?

AFNOR and Neo4j’s Innovation Lab

Stéphane Delysse: This Innovation Lab was the occasion to get people coming from different parts of the company, because in our company, they are the people who are working on the new standards and who are preparing the standards of the future. And there are some other people here who are working on how to put these standards in the products and to have our customers get a better vision of all the standards and to find their way in all these collections.

So this lab was the occasion to bring these people coming from these two sides and to work with the IT department and to confront different views. And working on this together, we found out new ways to use these datas. We launched new projects this year based on what we discovered with you last year.

Stefan Wendin: Nice. Super happy to hear it. And yeah, as you say, I remember that it was the idea in the middle, and then we had two kinds of business sides, so we were kind of two joined tracks at the same time. I think, because of that, it’s one really interesting way of working, kind of mixing people, having the specialist, having the new perspective, and also having a facilitator molding this all together, these kinds of different mental models. It was super cool to see.

There were a lot of experts in there, and I always say the more of an expert you are on the topic, the more likely you are to F things up, right? Because you know how things used to be. That’s what you’re an expert on. Very often, we are an expert on what we have done. The more time we spend, the more we work on those old neuropaths. So I think that was also the case in your organization, but it seems like that’s been unlocked now and I’m super happy to see that it worked for you as well. It was, for me, a journey coming in with no prior knowledge. But again, I think that’s the beauty of that process. It allows us to just repeat it and repeat it and then bring it together using the collected knowledge. Because we all know that the smartest person in the room is the room, right, if we have a process for allowing for that to happen.

And so I learned a lot about the standards and your domain. So I was curious to hear, did you have any learnings, specific learnings, from the Innovation Lab itself or regarding Neo and such?

Lessons From the Innovation Lab

Stéphane Delysse: From the Innovation Lab, we learned how we could represent the graph with interaction of the standards and give a better vision to our customers and bring some new tools in the interface of the products we sell. And it will help as well. The customers will use the standards when they are published, but it will also help the experts who are working on the standards to think about new items, new subjects to cover with the standardizations.

Stefan Wendin: That’s true. And I think also for me, seeing how things come together from a data perspective is one thing. Seeing that it has a value for the business is also an important step in this journey, but sometimes, we tend to forget the end user or the people that’s going to use the tool, right, the actual interface. What happens if we change the background, and how is that represented in the front end? So I think that’s a good reminder.

I think for me, this is the Holy Trinity, right? The data and IT perspective, the business kind of value proposition, and then the user experience. And having these together and prototype it together, agreeing on things, for me, it allows for less conflict and friction in the industry because we all know what happens when the boss of another domain says, “Hey, I built the tool for you,” and then we are very often skeptical of those like, “No, I don’t want your tool. I have my best own one that I’ve built.” And then we behave a little bit sometimes, I guess, like kids in the sandbox or playing around. It’s a good reminder.

I think, for me, this has been an astonishing journey. I’m super happy to also call you my dear friend now, Stéphane, and I have no more questions from Neo. But I wonder, do you have any kind of last words for the listeners out there, coming from a background like yours, maybe a traditional or kind of a tricky one about how to start exploring graphs? What would be the best way, or any sort of encouragement?

Connecting Throughout the Pandemic

Stéphane Delysse: Thank you, Stefan. This Lab was a very good experience and indeed, my vision is that this experience brings us two things. There was the fact that we work on the graph and so we identified that there were a lot of possibilities for the future to develop new products, et cetera. But that was not the only thing that was interesting in this Lab.

There was also the fact that last year, it was the beginning of this pandemic and you succeeded in organizing this Lab and with people at their homes because there was a lockdown. And this was at the beginning of the lockdown and in one week you were able to bring people together from different parts of the company who were not used to working together. And it was very comforting to see that, at the beginning of the pandemic, to still work together and with so many… and we were very enthusiastic to work on this subject.

Stefan Wendin: Thanks a lot. That was a lot of kind words. I’m blushing here, so we might need to retouch some red out of my face. It was a crazy time, and I’m super happy that I can be a part of helping this. This is what I always say my job is. I am like the cheeseburger. We all know about this, right? We have the bread or the bun. We have the meat, and then I just slide in there like a slice of cheese, making it a little bit stickier and gooier. Of course, that comes with a vegetarian option if that’s your preference.

Stéphane Delysse: Right.

Stefan Wendin: But super nice of you to do this. Good luck on your future adventures. Maybe next time we will catch up, I will have to do this in French because I forced you to do it in English. Let’s see if I can get good at it. If not, at least I have something new to learn because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: learning, exploring, and doing it together and having fun.

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