Digital transformation: Why data leaders must play offense during COVID-19

Digital transformation: Why data leaders must play offense during COVID-19

As the pandemic forces organizations to transform to stay afloat, chief data and analytics officers have an opportunity to reinvent the business

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In just a few months, COVID-19 has achieved something that top business leaders have struggled with for decades: The virus has served as an unexpected catalyst for the digital transformation of organizations. With physical contact between people limited at best, the world is quickly embracing a digital lifestyle in every sense of the word.

However, the social shutdown has also precipitated a global recession. Unlike earlier recessions, this one has dealt a double whammy to organizations. At one end, markets have turned fragile and customers are disappearing. At the other end, there are internal challenges with disrupted supply chains and a displaced workforce.

Here’s how technology leaders must respond to swiftly reinvent their business.

Data's role in digital transformation

Organizations that best harvest insights from the data value chain differentiate themselves.

In a digitized business, data is the single thread that connects everything from the supply chain through internal operations to the market-facing side of things. Organizations that harvest insights from this data value chain are poised to differentiate themselves and emerge as market leaders.

Deloitte studied several large companies that exhibited the highest level of analytics maturity. The study found that nearly half of these companies significantly exceeded their business goals in the past year. To outperform the competition, Deloitte recommends that business leaders deploy analytics more broadly and invest in a data-driven culture.

[ IT leaders in our community are sharing advice on navigating this crisis. Read Crisis leadership: How to overcome anxiety. ]

It’s not just enterprises that stand to benefit from data-driven leadership. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plays a critical role in the U.S. government’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Amidst a rapidly spiraling health crisis, the organization felt the need for a data leader to ensure a swifter national response and put out a call to hire a chief data officer (CDO).

With data and technology leadership becoming increasingly critical, what should be the responsibility of data leaders such as the CDO or chief analytics officer (CAO)?

Should data leaders play offensive or defensive?

Earlier this year, I moderated a panel discussion of Chief Data and Analytics Officers (CDAO) from diverse industries in the CDAO APEX Winter event. The top concern in January 2020 was that many organizations did not feel the need for a data-focused role on their leadership team. Organizations that did staff for this role did not seem to agree on the job responsibilities.

The pandemic is shining a spotlight on the role of CDAOs.

Amidst all this confusion, data leaders were quietly playing a supporting role behind the scenes.

Popular opinion was split between two areas of responsibilities, popularly referred to as “defensive” and “offensive” activities. On the defensive side (arguably the more widely held viewpoint), CDAOs were expected to own the collection, curation, and storage of data. They were tasked with data governance and enablement of easy access to information. They safeguarded information assets through data security and regulatory compliance initiatives.

On the other side, a few organizations looked to the CDAOs to play an offensive role – by enabling revenue-generating activities. In these organizations, they were expected to help with product improvement, customer engagement, and business innovation.

How has the role of data leaders changed?

With the pandemic forcing digital transformation, the tables turned in just a few weeks. Suddenly, there is newfound importance for data in organizations and an immediate spotlight on the role of CDAOs.

In the current global lockdown, data can uncover bottlenecks in the business and help leaders quickly focus on the immediate priorities. Data can provide better visibility in today’s uncertain economy by revealing shifts in customer behavior and marketplace changes.

Today’s data leaders are leading organizational initiatives by tapping into internal and external data and facilitating the consumption of insights from these assets.

Offensive and defensive tasks during this crisis

Across organizations, data leaders are driving strategic initiatives to ensure not just business continuity, but also revenue growth. Here are some key responsibilities they have taken up:

Helping identify disruptions to raw materials by monitoring multiple tiers of the supply chain. Organizations are revisiting the data they generate and repurposing it to monitor machines remotely, a task that previously required on-site workers.

Helping adapt the organization’s offerings to a remote world by identifying alternate channels of marketing and distribution. With most products offered online, data is helping shape the product features and evolve a roadmap based on usage patterns.

Troubleshooting customer pain points and monitoring their digital adoption. Data from public sources such as Google Trends is helping organizations understand the shift in consumer behavior and get early signals on categories that are seeing an uptick in demand.

These are clearly offensive responsibilities in a CDAO’s portfolio. Data leaders are balancing this new role by contrasting it with some defensive activities, tailored to the age of social distancing, such as:

  • Ensuring enterprise-wide access to newer sources of customer intelligence and public data streams.
  • Widening the scope of data governance to support a distributed workforce while ensuring security and regulatory compliance.
  • Easing the transition to remote work by helping resolve collaboration and productivity challenges for employees.
  • Enabling high-performing virtual teams by leveraging data streams from collaboration tools and application usage.
  • Adapting regulatory compliance with the needs of a post-COVID world.
  • Exploring ways that data can help with new demands such as maintaining social distancing, by using AI-driven computer-vision algorithms.

Data leaders must lead from the front with offensive responsibilities, which are the need of the hour. By balancing their focus on defensive tasks, they can round up their portfolio and continue to play a critical leadership role.

Despite all the negative impacts, the COVID-19 crisis has provided a golden opportunity for leaders to demonstrate the true value of data. Now is the time for technology and data leaders to play offensive and use the momentum to set their organizations firmly on a data-driven path – now and into the future.

[ How is the COVID-19 crisis reshaping agendas? Read: Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes. ]

Ganes Kesari is an entrepreneur, AI thought leader, author, and TEDx speaker. He co-founded Gramener, where he heads Data Science Advisory and Innovation. He advises executives of large organizations on data-driven decision making.

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