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Tomorrow Comes Today – Using External Data to Cut Through the Unpredictability of Crises

March 16, 2020 Explorium Data Science Team AI Education

“Only a crisis —  actual or perceived — produces real change.”

– Milton Friedman

The start of 2020 has been one of the most turbulent on record for the global economy and for businesses everywhere. As fears over the spread of COVID-19 (also known as novel coronavirus) reach a fever pitch, national economies have stalled, gone sideways, and in some cases entered a free-fall. For business leaders in both large and small organizations, the signals being sent by world leaders, health organizations, and the media highlight the precarious situation in which we find ourselves. 

For executives, the current crisis is one of two things — an insurmountable problem that threatens their organizations with ruin; or an opportunity to refocus their efforts, find new ways forward, and set themselves up for the future. Crises and uncertain times such as the one we currently find ourselves in force us to reevaluate the assumptions we’ve developed and held as fact until now. How, then, can we prepare and future-proof our organizations, knowing that our teams are looking to us for guidance in these unpredictable times? 

Letting go of our old models

The extended boom cycle we found ourselves in since the financial recession of 2008 has lulled organizations into a sense of security and business-as-usual thinking. Indeed, even as data became more important to our organizations and even the global economy, we only needed the data that we could produce and store ourselves to find the right answers. But, therein lies the danger of planning for calm waters. 

Historic sales are a great indicator of future sales, and previous customer activity can tell us almost exactly how future customers will interact with us — assuming the current conditions hold. But, what happens when things get even the tiniest bit unpredictable? What happens if, instead of business-as-usual, we wake up into a world where yesterday’s data is almost completely invalid? 

The answer is to look elsewhere, to spread out from our own data and find the external data that can give us visibility even as things become more unpredictable. However, external data is not always easy to come to, often requiring months of work and intensive resources to find and integrate — unless we find a smarter way to do it. We need to find better data, and we need it fast. 

Enhancing our visibility

External data is one of the greatest assets organizations have in times of crisis, but only when you can approach it the right way. The traditional method — manually searching through individual datasets, testing them, and spending months seeing if they work — means that by the time you find the right source, you may already have fallen significantly behind and be in real trouble. Moreover, this is when you’re looking at ONE dataset, let alone the hundreds that may have valuable insights. 

For external data to be truly effective, you must be able to combine it with your internal data as quickly as you can find it, and without having to stop and worry about it being relevant. This means using the right tools and platforms to help you connect to these external datasets, extract the valuable information from them, and gain the answers you need in real-time. When you can do this, the insights you gain can be the difference between charting a course through murky waters and being caught adrift in uncertainty. 

At this point, however, you may be wondering exactly why you would need external data since you already have a trove of internal data at hand? The answer is that your old data doesn’t apply to our new reality. However, it can give you a base to start asking the right questions, assuming you have the context to get relevant answers. This is where external data gives you real value, especially if you can access it in real-time — it lets you ask new questions and gain visibility even if you didn’t have it a few minutes before. 

New knowledge for new questions 

Imagine the chief data officer at your organization — the person everyone turns to when they need to understand the information they’re collecting and working through. In a crisis, their role becomes more critical, but if they can’t provide relevant answers, every other part of the organization will struggle as a result. 

By using external data and enhancing their existing datasets, CDOs can instead start asking the right questions — building smarter predictive revenue models that factor in changing prices and external economic conditions, for instance; or creating KPIs that are more realistic when accounting for things like work stoppages, remote working, and even weather conditions that could exacerbate health problems. 

Or, imagine a marketing chief who suddenly finds that their existing sales channels and marketing strategies are no longer relevant. Instead of falling back on existing data and lead scoring models, they can connect previous customer data with new information about current search terms, social media behavior, and even changing demographic data to provide a more accurate picture of what today’s shoppers care about, and who they should prioritize. 

Chief risk officers are looking at a new ballgame as well; one where corporate risk and fraud are rapidly evolving. Looking at external business data, environmental information, and even weather patterns could help them chart a course that helps their organizations remain compliant and avoid the pitfalls that could severely impact their bottom line in uncertain days. 

Out with the old, in with the new 

The days of relying on ourselves and our own data are quickly coming to an end. The question now is, will your organization adapt to find its way out of the unpredictability, and how?  Using the tools that can give you better data, as well as the means to predict and chart a course through the uncertain landscape, is no longer optional, it’s mandatory if you want to thrive and not just survive. It’s time to look outside of our own silos for the answers, and its time to make sure that despite the crises we face, we can give our organizations the power to make it through them. 

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