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The COVID-19 impact on analytics professionals

The global pandemic has forced many businesses to make quick changes. The COVID-19 impact on analytics professionals makes them imperative to changing business goals.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every business. Data and analytics professionals are more valuable than ever because they can help navigate through the crisis. Yet Brandon Purcell, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said some companies are laying off members of the data team.

"These teams have always had a queue of potential projects to take on, and that really hasn't changed," Purcell said. "It's gotten even worse because companies have been forced to lay off people, including some of these valuable resources. The type of work they're focusing on has certainly changed. Before, companies were really focused on growing the top line, bringing on new customers [and] increasing the lifetime value of customers. Now companies are losing customers."

However, Nigel Duffy, global artificial intelligence leader at EY, and Natalia Modjeska, a research director at Info-Tech Research Group, said the COVID-19 impact on analytics professionals is less dire. Duffy and Modjeska both said they weren't aware of data team layoffs at this time.

In fact, Modjeska thinks organizations may be hiring more analytics professionals now because they're going to need data insights that help them understand what they should be doing.

"You need those people to understand what's going on to be able to reprioritize, reforecast, re-budget," Modjeska said. "There are millions of claims that need to be processed, but for lots of organizations you need to hire more staff or build sophisticated models and skill sets to make sense of them."

Now is not the time to fire, furlough or lay off members of the data team. While in an ideal world, no one would be robbed of their livelihood, it's data and analytics professionals who are going to help their employers recover.

Data-related talent is hard to attract and hard to retain. Let them go, and you may have trouble building the team back up again, which could equate to a competitive disadvantage.

The impact on business KPIs

Most organizations were laser-focused on digital transformation up until just a few weeks ago. In that context, the primary goal was to manage the impacts of digital disruption by becoming more agile and data-driven and providing better quality customer experiences.

The COVID-19 pandemic represents an even more extreme form of disruption that is global and systemic. It's impacting all stakeholders in all types of value chains everywhere, albeit not equally.

Some organizations are trying to keep up with the sudden and unusually high demand for necessities that has resulted from widespread panic and hoarding. Other businesses are facing an existential crisis, although some of them are trying to adapt by serving customers in new ways, such as selling products online for the first time, offering online ordering and curbside pickup or delivering orders directly to customers' homes within hours where possible.

To date, the focus of data science and analytics has been on top-line growth, according to Forrester's Purcell. Now companies are trying to minimize operational expenditures and optimize operations.

"KPIs need to change in the short term. There needs to be more focus on operational metrics and business continuity," Purcell said.

For example, call center responsiveness and issue resolution times have become increasingly important as companies attempt to handle the dramatic spikes in customer service demand.

Many organizations had already been trying to lower overhead by implementing chatbots and encouraging customers to check the status of something via the company website. Now healthcare providers are using chatbots to help patients determine whether they should seek treatment for COVID-19 symptoms.

Modjeska said she's already seeing new supply chain operating models that are focused on reshoring because businesses can't depend on overseas suppliers. She also thinks that the last-mile delivery of products will become even more prevalent as the world recovers from the pandemic.

KPIs are changing because business models are changing. That's where analytics and data can help figure out what patterns and trends are emerging.
Natalia ModjeskaResearch director, Info-Tech Research Group

"KPIs are changing because business models are changing. That's where analytics and data can help figure out what patterns and trends are emerging," Modjeska said.

There's a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty. However, how organizations handle the present situation will likely impact their brand image now and after the crisis has subsided.

"Just from a brand perspective, this is one of those moments in history where you can cement your brand in people's minds in a positive or negative way," Purcell said. "If companies make the right moves -- and a lot are -- they have an opportunity to garner goodwill from their customer bases."

Duffy thinks businesses should find ways to measure workforce resilience, supply chain resilience and working capital resilience as well as organizational agility. In this way, the COVID-19 impact on analytics professionals has made their insights more important for measuring those changing KPIs.

"One thing I hope comes out of this is an assessment of leadership's ability to understand models and the importance of models," he said.

Like Forrester's Purcell, Duffy sees analytics professionals helping to optimize other functions in addition to sales and marketing such as HR, finance and risk management. 

Experimentation and testing are essential

Data science starts with a hypothesis that is either proven or disproven through testing. However, since the past is not an accurate predictor of the future given the sudden extreme circumstances, organizations and their data teams are well advised to adopt hyper-short testing cycles and constant iteration since trends can vary dramatically from one week to the next.

"Most companies are in the middle of an extreme experiment. We've gone from working from home part of the time to all of the time," Duffy said. "Companies that were not comfortable with the risks or the technology have rapidly figured out how to make it work. We have to be comfortable with big change."

New KPIs a collaborative effort

Despite all the hype about data-driven business over the last 15 years or more, not all organizational leaders listen to data team members. While leaders are supposed to make more informed decisions enabled by data analytics, some still expect data to align with their assumptions or agendas.

"I call it data gerrymandering," Purcell said. "Different groups carve out data in different ways so it tells the story they or their executives want to hear."

Organizational leaders should listen to data professionals because they understand the data and the trends data indicates. Therefore, data professionals can help recommend which KPIs leaders should monitor.

"They're plugged into the technical community -- Github and Kaggle," Modjeska said. "They know what other people are doing so you can learn from them. They want to help, but [you should] reach out to them and ask and act on their ideas."

Executives should also make a point of listening to their employees because many of them are afraid to speak out in the current climate for fear of losing their jobs.

"KPIs around the relationship with the workforce and the health of the workforce -- physical and psychological health -- may not be the first thing people think about," said EY's Duffy.

Bottom line

Businesses have an opportunity to reimagine their place in the world, although they'll have to adopt an extreme form of agility as they move forward in today's uncertain business climate.

Analytics professionals can help organizational leaders better manage the opportunities and risks that the COVID-19 pandemic represents. Failing to listen to those resources and slashing those positions could hurt businesses in the long run.

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