3 minute read

When data management meets crisis management

As businesses deal with the consequences of the global pandemic, disrupted data strategies are the reality for many leaders. Instead of supporting growth, many have had to plan cutbacks or even the wholesale closure of a business. James Miller reflects on his own experience of emergency planning.

In this article I provide a personal perspective of leading data and analytics in a time of crisis. A mentor once said to me that the chances of being caught up in company administration at least once in a retail career is inevitable. Recently, this inevitability occurred, as it has for so many others.

At just ten months in as the first data leader at a major UK plc, I was forced not only to scrap a well-crafted data vision, but to adapt an entirely new data function in a matter of weeks to support a complex administration process. Having spent years using data and analytics to grow and transform organisations, this new experience has tested my professional and personal limits.

Here are four lessons I have learnt.

1. Data is vital in a time of crisis

We normally talk about the role of data in the context of business growth. However, in recent times, many data leaders have been forced to consider the role of data during a crisis. In tough times, the need to make quick intelligence-led decisions is at its greatest. In this year of extremes, the stakes are perhaps the highest they’ve been for a generation and the ramifications of business decisions for people and asset values are enormous.

As the guardians of their organisation’s DNA, be it operational, customer, financial, or other forms of critical insight, data leaders have an important role to play. We must ensure critical information is available for rapid decisions and activities. It is little wonder, then, that data leaders are among the first to be offered a seat at the crisis table.

2. Strong data foundations will support the load

At a time of crisis, any weaknesses in your data strategy will be glaring. Crisis shines a harsh light on business processes and weak links will come back to haunt you. It is vital to ensure your data strategy is underpinned by strong foundations that bake-in resilience. From a practical point of view, this is all about ensuring business critical data has been sourced, integrated, made analytics-ready and accessible.

These fundamentals have always been the role of the data leader. But once other priorities have been stripped away, this capability is paramount. It must be built with future resilience in mind.

3. Be prepared to get rid of the nice-to-haves

A crisis sharpens your focus on what matters, like no other time. You’ll likely find that certain components of your strategy will need to be sacrificed as your function streamlines. If you think of your data domain as a cake, then in a time of crisis all you need is the cake itself, not the icing and certainly not the cherries. 

You’ll need to decide what parts of the data domain are mission-critical as you strip your strategy down to survival basics. For example, some of the crowd-pleasing elements of data (such as visualisation in my case) may give way to more prosaic analytics.

4. Agile analytics come into their own

The demand for fresh and fast data and analysis escalates. In normal times, strong data foundations always need to be paired with a focused analytics function – the demands of a crisis will stress-test these. Analysis windows shorten to the matter of days and hours.

This underlines the need for strong fundamentals – people, processes and platforms. The analytics function needs to be empowered to meet erratic and sudden deadlines. An interesting upside of this situation is that time pressures necessitate the delivery of results in progress, rather than polished analytical and data products. Handled well, this can encourage more collaborative problem-solving and useful iteration.

There is, of course, a risk to quality in these circumstances. A healthy dose of pragmatism is required – key and high-risk analytical routines can still be productionised.

Doing data in a crisis will take you out of your comfort zone. Sacrificing your vision is undoubtedly difficult. Yet this exercise in resilience is nonetheless illuminating, providing lessons that can be applied to the future. 

To borrow a well-known phrase, you should never let a crisis go to waste – it’s an opportunity to do things differently and, above all, to grow.

James Miller, head of analytics and insight, intu

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