Data-driven digital transformation: five technology initiatives for the age of Covid-19

This is a guest blogpost by Rich Pugh, co-founder and chief data scientist, Mango Solutions

The things we do not know about Covid-19 seem almost endless. There are no clear answers yet to some of the most fundamental questions for any disease – including the best treatment methods, whether people who have had it gain immunity and how long such an immunity might last, and when we can expect an effective vaccine.

Without answers to these questions, and with rapidly extending timescales for a return to normality, there has possibly never been a greater need for clarity than there is today – not to mention the pressure that the race for a vaccine is placing on the pharmaceutical industry.

This drive for more insight, sooner, highlights an important truth that many in the business services world have come to live by – that data-driven digital transformation is critical to success now, during Covid-19, longer term when we return to our (new) normality and further down the line still when we return to business as (new) usual.

Breaking down the buzzword phrase, “data-driven digital transformation” is simply the use of new digital technology to find better, quicker ways to solve problems with data, whether that’s finding an effective vaccine in a time-critical situation, or making strategic decisions about which drug research projects are the most promising to pursue. However, as any CIO can tell you, embracing a data-driven digital transformation journey is not simple and there are no plug-and-play shortcuts to real success. Instead, it’s about taking a data-driven approach, putting the information and skills you have at the heart of the project, and building outwards with the right technology to deliver insights at speed.

With time of the essence, there are five key initiatives that will help organisations succeed with data-driven digital transformation in these uncertain days:

  1. Embracing a data-driven future

An uncomfortable truth is that the impact of Covid-19 is likely with us for the long run – not just in its social ramifications, but also in how it will force all businesses to think strategically and do more with less. Your competitors, the ones that make it through the next few months, will likely be faster and hungrier than ever before. This means that you as a business also have to be prepared to become data-driven, and fast. To do this, the culture of your business will need to change, which is no easy feat. Finding early champions of the data-driven mentality – those who are enthusiastic about the potential of data to bring about real and actionable change – and then building momentum using these advocates will be critical. At the same time, it is important to plan opportunities for these champions of the data-driven future to share their vision and drive with the wider company at internal events, hackathons or company offsites to showcase the best practices of a data-driven company.

  1. Planning for success

Every successful initiative – be it data-driven digital transformation or otherwise – begins with a plan and a definition of success. Achievable goals, clearly defined and easy to measure, are critical. As a business, what is it that you need to be successful during the Covid-19 environment and then returning from it fighting fit in the ‘new normal?’ It’s important to understand the metrics you want to drive in order to align data-driven activities to enable them. These can include cost reduction, revenue generation, or creating richer experiences to gain and retain customers. By knowing, defining and sharing a set of goals, it becomes clearer what the company is working towards, and ensures that all stakeholders and teams share a common understanding of what success looks like.

  1. Upskilling for data and analytic literacy

While technology has been a whirlwind of development, successful data-driven digital transformation has been a slow-moving force over the last 10 years. With the Covid-induced changes foisted on industry, the rate of transformation can be expected to quicken. During this period, we’ve all become increasingly used to seeing graphs and metrics reported so people have become more used to interrogating and understanding data. This is an ideal basis for dealing with data and making informed decisions. Changes in workforce competences and essential skills that might have played out over years are now playing out over days and weeks, which means that it’s more critical now than ever to upskill your workforce; globally, 74% of employees report feeling overwhelmed or unhappy when working with data, yet data proficiency is critical to digital transformation and data-driven success.

A data-driven company where only the C-Suite and a few select employees lead with data will always lose out to one that has data literacy spread through every tier of the organisation. Now is the time to consider the skills and competencies you’ll need in the coming months and years, and ensure you’re enabling those critical dependencies at every level of your workforce. While that may mean additional CAPEX at a time when liquid funds are harder to come by, the benefits of a workforce that feels comfortable with data – and understands how to use it effectively for the success of the business – will pay dividends for years to come. Internal skill-sharing and mentorship programmes can also help, utilising your data champions to drive wider enthusiasm and to share best practices in a peer-to-peer environment.

  1. Business Simulation

To not see Covid-19 coming is excusable; to fail to plan for Covid’s outcome is not. There is no clear outcome at this stage, which means that your organisation needs to plan for the “new normal” to last three months, six months, or multiple years – simultaneously. Planning for uncertain times raises the need to simulate all the different likely outcomes, and then work out what is required for success. If different departments have embedded analysis teams and therefore access to the right analytic tools and skills, they can model the outcome of multiple situations at different points on the development and supply chains, you will be better equipped to address potential risk and make informed plans to handle all likely outcomes. Better still – if you have completed the above key initiatives, insights generated by these analysis teams can be shared across departments and with the company as a whole to ensure everyone knows what warning signs to look for, and the best courses of action to help the company succeed.

  1. Machine Learning/Artificial intelligence

Once you know where your company is, what resources you have, and where you’re going, then – and indeed, only then – you can start looking at advanced analytics and technology. One of the most important analytic approaches is machine learning, which can help find connections and trends in the data that human data analysts may not even know to look for. This is particularly important in a situation like now, where there are simply more unknowns than knowns. However, you can’t make good decisions without good data. If your computer intelligence system is based on backwards-looking data that has been wrangled out of Excel, and produces insights that only the analysts can understand, it is all but useless. Instead, consider opportunities to enable machine learning to solutions and focus on forward-looking insight, ensuring these are able to automatically convert current data into real, actionable insight – which can be easily understood across the business functions.

By taking these five initiatives, companies will be best placed not just to survive in the Covid-19 era, but emerge with a strong competitive intelligence. With the right digital infrastructure in place – supported by a culture that is data-driven and continually innovating, and the right skills to ensure the entire company is able to share in the future vision – companies stand to thrive when we exit this period of uncertainty.

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