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Four lessons learned on using agile analytics to thrive in crisis

May 21, 2020 - 303 views

Four lessons learned on using agile analytics to thrive in crisis

Agile analytics is key to adjusting to fast-changing customer realities, now and after the pandemic subsides. Here's what we've learned from our experience.

With sales dropping rapidly due to COVID-19 lockdowns, a leading international convenience store needed recommendations on how to increase its revenue – and it needed the answers quickly.  

Within five days of starting our analysis, we assessed how the business’s “basket” of top-selling items had changed. This would allow managers to ensure stores had adequate supplies of these products, and that they were placed close enough to the checkout that nervous customers could spend as little time as possible in the store.

The result: Average per-customer purchases of these products rose about 25%. Just as important as the financial results, however, are these four lessons learned about how analytics must change amid a global health and economic crisis.

  • Focus on the low-hanging fruit. We normally deliver detailed reports to this client on sales of 5,000 to 6,000 products in each of its 9,000 convenience stores, with multiple levels of management at the business unit, regional and store levels. With sales dropping so quickly and sharply, we couldn’t afford to crunch that much data and get the fast answers this client needed. We began by brainstorming with the client about what subset of its sales data would most likely yield useful insights. The result was to focus on the mix of products that generated more than $15 in revenue from a customer visit. Our analysis found that this product mix had shifted from the traditional coffee, cigarettes and muffins to bread, milk and eggs during the lockdown. Managers responded by making extra efforts to keep those items in stock and placing them near the checkout. If we had tried to “boil the ocean” with a wider data analysis we would never have delivered results so quickly. 
  • Use analytic “sprints” for new ideas. Since it was impossible for us or the client to know which data, analytics or presentation of the results would be most effective, we created an agile analytics process much like that used in software development. In each “sprint” we described in rough form the analysis we proposed to perform, as well as examples of the simplified dashboards in which we would present the results. These frequent check-ins allowed us to perform more steps (such as requirements gathering, building a data integration pipeline and developing prototypes) in parallel while fine-tuning our approach. Not only did this dramatically cut the time to business benefit, but it also ensured we advised the business with data-based insights and new ideas despite unpredictable, changing needs resulting from the pandemic.
  • An agile data foundation is essential. The ability of cloud-based analytical platforms to rapidly scale to meet new demands is more crucial than ever in the COVID-19 era. Leveraging the pre-built data hub in Microsoft Azure, we could rapidly provision new compute, network and storage resources or decommission them when they weren’t needed, paying only for what was used. The unified experience that’s part of Microsoft Azure Synapse Analytics will become even more important as we help this client navigate a slow and uncertain return to normal.
  • Plan for the post-pandemic future. Different regions will open for business at different paces and may need to re-impose restrictions on people and businesses if new outbreaks occur. As a result, this client will need to continually adjust product mix, product placement and product sourcing as supply and demand conditions change unpredictably in every region in which it operates. We’re using machine learning to refine our analytic models to predict the effects of everything from ongoing infection rates to regional weather conditions on future sales and demand trends. This data includes medical information from leading healthcare providers, as well as historical internal data, such as same-store sales. At each step, we’re using our agile analytics methods to make sure we deliver the analytics the business needs most as the recovery from the pandemic unfolds.

Agile Is the Only Way

We won’t pretend this journey hasn’t been challenging and will continue to be. The status of COVID-19 infections and lockdowns is changing so quickly that each round of our post-lockdown predictions can model only the subsequent two weeks. The good news is that the agile processes and agile technologies we’re using work – and will only become more vital as we recover from the pandemic.

To learn more about Microsoft Azure Analytics, click here.

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Anil Nagaraj

Anil Nagaraj is a Vice President of Analytics & AI in Cognizant's Digital Business practice. He has spent over 20 years...

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