Mar 12 2021

How Advanced Data Analytics Powers Organizations’ Missions

As Big Data applications become more widespread, businesses still on the sidelines find themselves at a disadvantage, experts say.

For Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response group founded by former U.S. Marines 11 years ago, pulling off a successful relief operation is an exercise in advanced data analytics. That’s because it has more than 138,000 volunteers supported by nearly 180 employees; it deployed more than 365 times last year alone.

Team Rubicon was “born in the cloud and lives in the cloud,” says COO Art delaCruz. By 2018, it was running about 30 cloud-based software systems. The problem: None were connected in any meaningful way.

When CIO Raj Kamachee came aboard that year, the organization began the process of building a centralized enterprise management system using Microsoft Dynamics 365. It now employs dashboard and other analytics capabilities through Microsoft Power BI.

“Every piece, for efficiency’s sake, can be automated,” says Kamachee. “Artificial intelligence in one part of the system can inform AI in another. There’s a complete feedback loop that can make recommendations and help with decisions.”

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Data is especially key when deciding where to deploy Team Rubicon’s limited resources. “One of our core premises is to start with people who need our help the most,” says delaCruz.

When initiating an operation, Team Rubicon pulls in a large array of data, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, weather and geospatial information, insurance data, and more. The organization can overlay its extensive database of volunteers to identify who might be closest to an affected area and therefore quickest to respond, as well as who might have special skills that could be required, such as sawyers needed for tree removal.

“We can go into Dynamics and see the operations our mission planning team is considering at any time, with all the su­pporting data and documents in one place,” says Kamachee. “Everyone then works in the same workspace.”

Winning Converts with Data Analytics

Like many aspects of digital transformation, the adoption of data analytics accelerated during the pandemic. According to IDC, the market for Big Data solutions — including analytics, business intelligence, data warehousing, reporting, visualization and more — is about 12 percent of the total software market worldwide. It’s also growing faster than the overall software market by about 3 percent.

“To some extent, the pandemic has forced even nonbelievers to realize they have to start using data analytics better,” says Chandana Gopal, research director for business analytics at IDC.

“Organizations that were already fairly mature in the way they deployed data analytics have a big advantage in today’s business climate.”

In fact, companies playing catch-up are at risk of falling further behind. “The spread between the haves and have-nots of companies using data will start getting more significant after the pandemic,” she says.

Genuine Parts, the international distributor of automotive replacement parts best known in North America for its NAPA Auto Parts brand, was a data “have.” That was the problem: It had so much data buried among different sources that it wasn’t gleaning valuable insights from any of it.

“There were too many tools,” explains Mike Robertson, director of business intelligence and guided analytics for Genuine Parts. “Spreadsheets, Lotus Notes, SQL Server, static reports sent over email, mainframe reporting. We had to consolidate somehow to get one single source of truth.”

Mike Robertson
We had to consolidate somehow to get one single source of truth.”

Mike Robertson Director of Business Intelligence and Guided Analytics, Genuine Parts

Insights Achieved with the Right Analytics Tools

About five years ago, Genuine Parts deployed Qlik Sense, an analytics solution Robertson credits for its ability to explore disparate data sources, including unstructured data.

Today, Genuine Parts maintains about 7,400 Qlik Sense licenses that support its Atlanta headquarters, sales and operations staffs, and more than 50 distribution centers, among other users. It draws from sales, marketing, inventory, supply chain and other systems, and recently, Robertson says, the company even extended Qlik’s data analytics capabilities to independent NAPA Auto Parts store owners and suppliers.

Insights emerged.

“Traditionally, stores would request parts from their distribution centers,” Robertson says. “Now we can see if we need to send out more parts from a distribution center or if there is a store nearby that has excess parts it can send over more quickly. We’re making better decisions faster.”

When the coronavirus pandemic began, the company’s analytics team rapidly launched new reporting applications in Qlik that helped address the challenges of doing business safely. For example, the company was upgrading store technology and couldn’t send technicians everywhere it needed to. So, the analytics team created a Qlik report ­showing which stores were running which point-of-sale systems, in order to safely plan and prioritize upgrades.

“They also built one for optimizing labor in stores,” Robertson says. “They wanted to track hours recorded by delivery drivers vs. hours en route, to make informed decisions on staffing models to reduce expenses while maintaining service levels.”

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Data That's Accessible to Everyone

The cloud is making it easier for organizations to build or advance their data analytics capabilities. As a result, more are empowering frontline employees to develop their own analytics reports. “Organizations realize they have to give their users freedom to use the tools that help them do their jobs most efficiently,” Gopal says.

For many organizations seeking to empower staff, however, self-service can’t be the main goal.

“I prefer to call it ‘governed self-­service’ rather than just ‘self-service,’” says Laura Ashworth, senior solutions architect at Raymond James, an investment bank and financial services firm. Raymond James adopted Qlik software in 2013 and established a center of excellence within the company to maximize the business impact of its data analytics program.

“We're putting in a governance layer to ensure one person isn’t writing a query one way, and then I'm bringing in the same data but writing the query a different way,” Ashworth says. The idea is to stop employees from arriving at two different results and sending conflicting information to executives.

The effort has included thoroughly cataloging data as it’s collected in Raymond James’s data warehouse for analysis by Qlik users to ensure it’s defined the same way across the business. “You have to be very conscious of tagging data correctly so when you describe a piece of information in one place, you’re describing it the same way everywhere,” she says.

Despite years of experience with data analytics, Ashworth says Raymond James is at the beginning of its journey to get data into more hands. Part of the challenge is resistance to change. Many executives are comfortable with familiar reports. Companies say it’s important to adopt a solution that can support multiple forms of analytics, from static reports to executive dashboards and governed self-service.

“Over time, you have to train users to be data literate,” says Ashworth.

How Data Is Getting It Done

Team Rubicon finds that analytics is vital to managing its huge network of volunteers and driving financial results. Its volunteer management system on Dynamics 365 includes a public-facing calendar function built with Power BI.

Volunteers can see a version of the operations planned or in progress and indicate their interest and availability, which feeds back into the system to support planning and decision-making.

The system automatically initiates email communications and can help execute required workflows, like managing volunteer waivers for certain operations.

“We want to increase the awesomeness for people who engage with us,” says delaCruz. “We want to eliminate barriers so volunteers are excited and ready to hop on that airplane or hop in their cars.”

Team Rubicon supported nearly 50 COVID-19 testing sites last summer and will be leaning on its analytics-based volunteer management system for its vaccination operations this year. It continues to move more of its operational data to Dynamics 365, most recently its financial systems and soon its fundraising.

“Analytics influences every process from an operational standpoint,” says delaCruz. “We can tell the story of our audacious plan with data. It’s well informed and a high-probability investment for our supporters. We can actually prove our effectiveness, because hope is a crummy strategy.”