Data is key to understanding demand in a post-lockdown world

Businesses in the UK and around the world are currently facing an extraordinary level of disruption. Those that thought they had planned for ‘black swan’ events couldn’t have predicted the extent to which COVID-19 would impact business. A survey conducted for the Institute of Supply Chain Management in March found that 75% of companies are reporting supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic, and this issue could continue post-lockdown if companies fail to use data to its full potential.

Even businesses that have been deemed essential to continue operating aren’t immune either. Shifting and heightened demand for urgent equipment like PPE and disinfectant has rocked supply chains, with many scrambling to meet changed requirements.

As businesses start to prepare for operation in a post-pandemic environment, many will be questioning how they will handle the sudden influx in demand and the ‘new normal’ of business operation. The answer? Those that put trust in integrated data solutions over instinct or gut feel will be best placed to handle the turbulent post-lockdown period. Here’s why.

Integrated data platforms will offer invaluable insight

Data integration is the lifeblood of an organisation. Every company has access to data, but only when it is collated and presented in a way that tells an informative story does it have true business impact.

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In the past, businesses have kept data siloed. Finance and sales teams, for example, would keep data within their own team environment, despite the fact that it would be useful to share with other areas of the business. This was largely because historically there was no platform to integrate the data and share it in a consumable way. On top of this, data often sat on a multitude of legacy systems that would make it difficult to access and any form of integration near impossible.

When it comes to supply chain data insights, it can be even more difficult to integrate due to the need to collaborate with third party suppliers whose systems may be outdated. Pulling this data is essential in order to have the oversight needed to make data-informed decisions. With the right tools and platforms, this can be possible. The businesses that prioritise integrating the data across their supply chain will have full visibility of volatility and shifts in demand, and will be equipped with the right information to best cope with change.

As the economic impact of the pandemic progresses, we have been looking into how we can integrate past data from the industry to get a better understanding of our own sales impact. Because we’ve never experienced anything like COVID-19 before, we have to look at economic indices and market data from previous events to establish how demand will change. We have been using data from recessions, where you see collapses in sales, to try and plan for the future. Mining for this type of data and integrating it with our existing insights can help us to understand drastic change.

Using tools for visibility and integration

Fortunately, there are tools and platforms available that facilitate data integration and provide insights in a way that is easy to consume and understand for everyone in a business. Platforms like Qlik not only integrate data, but they also enable data discovery, pulling large volumes of disparate data from many sources, such as third party suppliers, into one dashboard that provides end-to-end supply chain visibility for a business.

Apps like those that Qlik offers not only integrate data, but they also analyse and distil it into easy to access data insights. Supply chain data analytics helps companies make new associations between once disparate systems to reveal hidden relationships which can inform the decisions that make real business change. Recognising the importance of investing in a solution to bring data together across the entire supply chain is the first step in becoming a data-led organisation.

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When demand is volatile and unpredictable, data technology tools can make all the difference in keeping businesses afloat. For example, businesses that have the capability to manufacture products like PPE that are currently in high demand can use publicly available data, such as hospital rates of where COVID-19 has had the biggest impact, and mapping technology to work out the number of branches they need to have open to serve. In bigger towns and cities where demand is higher, businesses are able to use this data to redirect resources to branches that are closest to that area and therefore busier. With an understanding of data lineage and customer behaviours, businesses can adjust their supply chain to ensure they have the right stock in the right locations to deliver essential products.

Trust in data is key

It’s been said by many, but the time we’re living through is indeed unprecedented, so much so that relying solely on past trends for insights into future demand is futile. A lot of business decisions are still made on gut feel, with those who feel they understand an industry overriding the data suggestions and assuming human experience alone is better informed. Nine times out of 10, this is not the case, and data will provide the most valuable insight when paired with human reasoning and industry expertise.

As businesses re-open and begin to find their feet in a post-lockdown economy, those that look to data to make business decisions will come out on top. Data is massively powerful and has the ability to provide insights that are often impossible to predict.

For example, we have been using data to tactically map branches around the country to understand how the pandemic has impacted them and where we need to make change. If a branch has experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, we have data to understand how that will impact output in the area, and can move necessary resources to other branches to continue operating and serving our customers post-lockdown. By plotting this data on maps, we’ve created a visual tool to understand any changes to output and deliverables throughout the crisis.

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There is still a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 – the duration of lockdown the UK is unknown, as is the true economic impact. One thing businesses can and should do to prepare themselves for what is likely the biggest disruptive period they will ever experience, is look closely at what data is telling them. Data has the capacity to reveal business insights that are often impossible for individuals to foresee. Access to the right data in the right way could help business keep afloat in a post-lockdown economy.

Written by Chris Dean, head of data, business intelligence and analytics at City Plumbing

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