Everything we do today creates data. From every click to every swipe. And when the pandemic forced us into sheltering in place, it also exponentially accelerated those clicks and swipes…and Zooms…and Uber Eats and Door Dash orders…. And you get the point. Many of the cash-based face-to-face transactions we’d make going into stores have turned into digital transactions and interactions. And all of this data can provide companies with important insights that can help guide companies during times of crisis into making the right calls on make-or-break decisions.
To get some real insight into how all the data coming from all these digital interactions can be (and is being) used to help small and midsize businesses during times of crisis like we have faced the last year, I recently had an informative LinkedIn Live conversation with Jay Upchurch; CIO of SAS, a leading analytics platform provider. We spoke at length on a number of issues, including how the role of data and analytics have changed during the pandemic, the opportunity presented by AI to help SMBs not only survive but also thrive in times of crisis like what we’re still facing a year into Covid-19, and more.
Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation. Click on the embedded SoundCloud player to hear the full conversation.
Small Business Trends: How has the role of data and analytics in business organizations changed in the year since the pandemic started, particularly with respect to customer engagement?
Jay Upchurch: You start with trust. You earn that trust over time. It’s not just given to you, and you earn that through your interpretation of the data. So to your point of, do you have access to the data? Can you interpret the data? Can you analyze the data? And can you make meaningful action on that analysis? And do those actions yield the result? And then as that continuous cycle gets up and going, trust starts to come with it. And so, again, in uncertain times, and these are certainly uncertain times, nothing is more important than how you interpret that data and take action against that.
For so many years, businesses and frankly some of the best leaders in the world – it doesn’t matter if it’s business or not – they were always viewed upon as being heroic because of what people saw was, “Well, that’s intuition.” They had a gut feel or they were smarter or something. Something made them better. And today, in today’s playing field, data normalizes that for all of us. Then so it’s a question of, do you have the talent around you, as you were saying a minute ago, Brent, to access the data, normalize it, transform it, make it what you need it to be, and then analyze it and make decisions out of that? That’s the hard part of this industry today. And I would tell you, we talk about it a lot, it’s a talent famine. So one of the things that we try to deal with is, how do we make everybody a data scientist? Because there’s only really a few that come out every year that are truly data scientists. So how do we make data available to all, and provide tooling to anybody that can come along and do work on it? That part is what’s fascinating to us. Another part of that we think a lot about is just the maturity curve that everybody has to go through when thinking about analytics and AI.
So, as an example, getting access to the data, analyzing it, and then just showing it on a dashboard or a report card, that’s step one fundamentals. And people learn and start to see more and more streams of data that come in the more and more insights I can get out of it. And then the next mile is, okay, I have these insights. Now, what do I go do? How do I take action with that? And how do I automate that? And how do I put models in place and maintain those models because the data all around us continues to change? Same thing with this pandemic. We thought we had the right data in March, April of last year. Think about how that’s changed over the last nine, 10, 12 months and where we are now. It’s the same thing, the model that you might’ve had specific to COVID-19 back in March last year, probably dramatically different than what you have today.
Changes in Data Leads to Changes in Business
Small Business Trends: It rolls right into this question that my buddy Alan Berkson has. “How has the data that you look changed from before the pandemic until now? And what we might see after the pandemic?” Because a lot of the things that we used to do, be able to go to the grocery store and just go in and buy a loaf of bread and then pay with cash and then walk out. There was no data on that kind of interaction or exchange. Now, you have to buy your groceries online that means the store knows it, and if it’s being delivered, the delivery people know it. So there’s a lot more data, there’s a lot more things that you could look at. And so how has that changed over the last year or so?
Jay Upchurch: Yeah, you’re exactly right. Data now is exploding. There’s more of it coming from a lot of different areas, and it’s not just big data sets that are shared or that people contribute to. It’s coming out of, going back to the grocery example for a second, Brent, I mean, that’s a great case where IoT is coming heavily into play, and we’re getting data out of sensors that people are interacting with without even understanding or realizing it. And so just thinking about all the different data sets that we have and marrying that data up, cross cutting it with data from a variety of sources. You mentioned it’s cold outside, so if I’m a restaurant, how do I take advantage of the data that I know around forecasts for weather with the data I have in supply with the data that I have with people coming in? Maybe updating in real time with, is everybody ordering something hot versus cold? How do I bundle for optimizing my profit?
There’s a whole lot of different data sets that are coming now, and people are coming to companies like SAS with the question of, “Well, how can you help me make sense of all this?” And it’s not only, again, thinking about the data and the sources, how to consume it, especially in a cloud world now, because data comes structured, unstructured, in a stream, after the fact, and it comes in a lot of different ways. But how do you take action on that analysis? And do you have the talent around you to take advantage of it? I think back to our conversations around small business, that’s a big challenge for the small business market and really the mid market too. I’ll tell you, the enterprise guys are having challenges with it as well. So where do you get that consult from? Where do you get those advisory services from? And then what kind of tools do you bring to bear to help put it into action for your business?
Can SMBs Survive Without Transforming?
Small Business Trends: In terms of small and mid-sized businesses, a lot of them before the pandemic… there were still a pretty significant amount of small businesses that were not using or utilizing the cloud as effectively as they possibly could have. I think there’s a stat where maybe 50% or so of SMBs still didn’t have a website. There weren’t a lot of them percentage-wise doing e-commerce. So how does the pandemic change the usage of the cloud? How does it change the uses of things like websites and IoT? How important is it for small, mid-sized businesses to begin to utilize these things? Maybe they were able to get and do things to a certain extent before the pandemic without using these tools, but can they survive if they don’t make these moves, start utilizing these tools more efficiently and effectively?
Jay Upchurch: That’s a great question. I find it hard to believe that you’re going to be able to survive without it. I think we are all faced with the question of, what does the future of work look like? And there are plenty of opinions about when people may come back to the office place, when they may not, when people return to some normal level of life. And I think that there’s still going to be a long tale of things that we have learned, things that we’ve started to accept as normal, that will remain or will become the new normal, if you will, as we move forward. And I think in the case, when you look at the new norm, I think it forces all businesses to become digitally enabled. I think some people talk about digital transformation and everybody wants to have that Uber transportation moment where, “Oh, we’ve got this idea. We’re going to totally transform an entire industry,” and that’s not necessarily the case.
You’ll see one of those out of a million. I mean, not everybody’s going to have that moment. And so how do you drive transformation in your business? I tell people all the time, it’s based on your maturity model, your digital maturity model, and you’ve got to take small steps in going through and figuring out, do I have a process? Is it well understood or is it still in the heads of a few? Is it put into a system? Can you actually automate it and understand it and use it? And then can you optimize it? And then later on, have you earned the right to eventually transform it? And so there are those natural steps. So I think you come back to the small business owner who may have had a local presence. They had a great local viral experience that helped grow their business to a certain scale. All of a sudden, 180 degree change. People stopped coming in. Everybody’s doing it remote. It forces you to adopt digital technologies.
So I actually think that the pandemic helped take the governor off the car a little bit when it comes to how fast you can go to adopt some of these new cloud native technologies. And I’ll tell you, at SAS, and this not an infomercial for SAS, but we’ve been faced with this for quite some time. I mean, trying to figure out how we transform our own products to being more digitally native, more cloud native, and how to drive adoption. You mentioned data a minute ago. The world around us right now is changing at such a rapid pace that our platforms, the tools that we give our customers in the market to be able to use, has to embrace open source, the open source community, the new technologies that are coming. We have to remain open, because it would be terrible for us to say, “Well, here’s your tool, but ignore this data set or that data set. We don’t want to give you access to whatever, our tool doesn’t allow it.”
Our tool and platforms and our industry solutions are only as good as the data that feeds it and your own mind’s creativity and how to interpret those results. [inaudible 00:08:50] landscape, it’s changed. I mean, there’s so many different tools that out there today. There are small niche tools that are easy to come in and adopt plug in and plug out after you try them. There are big systems that obviously are continuing to be highly disruptive and give us new power and everything else. Somebody’s got to help make sense of all of that, and then run your campaigns across that in a way that is meaningful in terms of how you measure your engagement. And sometimes that’s a challenge in and of itself, just making sense of the ecosystem that you’ve, interesting enough, volunteered to take on.
The Need for Speed
Small Business Trends: We’re getting all this new data, like you talked about. It’s coming from a variety of places. Who was talking about things like Clubhouse last year? Probably nobody, but now that’s a channel and there’s probably going to be some interesting data coming out of that. More and more of us are involved with live streaming and in virtual events, so there’s all this stuff coming at consumers and companies alike, and it’s coming from a variety of areas and it’s coming with this unrelenting speed. And yet still it feels like if you don’t do something with that information quickly, you lose an opportunity to create a meaningful interaction. So what about speed and the speed of data, but also the speed to be able to react to the data and turn it into something meaningful, fit in this equation?
Jay Upchurch: Yeah. The scary thing is that the data is coming at you at a rate of pace that you literally cannot consume. We talk about our events processing technology, which is again a type of technology that allows you to consume real time data off of sensors at incredible speeds. So my point there is that it’s going to be difficult just to even keep up with, and that’s where the models that you create has to have technology that can ingest that data, interpret that data, and give back a result that’s meaningful. There’s no way that anybody in today’s day and age can interpret all that data, correlate it, and come back with an insight in a manual manner. So the platforms, the tools, the solutions that are available, SAS, non-SAS, everything that’s out there empowers the business. And it doesn’t matter if you’re small, medium, or large.
I think the other thing about speed is we have a natural hesitation as humans not to be as curious as we should be. I talked about this in an article that I published about a month or so ago, and it just talked about the power of curiosity, and it’s actually one of our core values at SAS that we really stress. You have to be curious about the data. The data will paint the picture for you if you allow it, but you’ve got to empower your team, the people around you, yourself, to be curious. And it’s funny, because as children, we’re naturally curious. And I’ve got three sons, there’ve been plenty of times where I’ve had to beg them to stop asking questions. Shame on me for that, because I don’t want to suppress that natural curiosity because later on in life, it’s actually what helps you be successful, and it’s what helps you be successful with data and analytics, is your own personal curiosity.
So I think from a speed standpoint, don’t be afraid to jump in and have those science experiments. Play with it and see. Understand the impact of moving data in and out and what that does to your models. I think there’s another aspect of speed, and that is model management. Your models atrophy because the data around you changes, again. At a rate of speed that we cannot really comprehend today. And so you have to be mindful that what worked for you yesterday may not necessarily work for you today. And so there are plenty of applications, again, SAS, being one of them, where we stress that model management, that model, that analytic life cycle, if you will. So you’ve got to make sure that just because you’ve stood something up and you’re working with it that you’re continuing to care and feed and expand on it.
And then I think the last one that I would say on speed is you’ve got to make sure that, again, it doesn’t matter what size business you are, you’ve got to make sure that your science experiment is something that will scale up with you as you grow. And that’s an interesting place again, where you come back to trust of, are you leveraging tools? Are you leveraging datasets? And are you leveraging aspects of your business that you trust that will allow you to scale and grow up? Because this thing can take on a life of its own if you allow it. So, again, that’s a place where we as SAS feel like we’ve done a pretty good job over the last four years. And when the market around you moves and having the data and the insight to know confidently how to pivot your business into a new area for, again, for your business survival, that is really one of the things that I think most companies under appreciate around analytics.
Analytics, AI and SMBs – A Formula for Surviving and Thriving the Pandemic
Jay Upchurch: A lot of people think about analytics and trying to put analysts into action more as a means to an end for cost containment or profit maximizing, or whatnot. But it actually allows you so much more than that. If I think about the digital twin capability and the way to test new ideas and explore them in a way that is a lot less risky than maybe in the past, that’s one of the things I think is really impactful. We’ve got a friend of mine who talks to me a lot about the taxi business, and he mentions how bad the taxi industry has been disrupted throughout the pandemic. And there’s an example of a firm that has pivoted more into food delivery and using the fleet and the systems for routing and for scheduling for food service instead for traditional human passenger service.
Small Business Trends: Right.
Jay Upchurch: And it’s one of those things where you’re like, “Yeah, you know what? That’s a logical natural extension of the use of technology.” But again, the use of data, the use of analytics allows you to pivot into that industry seamlessly and meet, again, where the demand is. So they already had the supply side of it figured out. That, to me, is really interesting.
AI is really just taking analytics and putting it much more into automated action and instrumenting and coding and beyond that.
Through some natural language processing, for instance, in customer service, you can be a small business and apply these technologies and suddenly operate at enterprise scale. And again, back to our conversation on how you take experiments and turn them into scale, that is a big part of what I think some companies struggle with in trying to figure out, how do I move these beyond just the experiments of the world?
AI is fascinating. I was on a panel about a month ago for North Carolina Technology. It’s a local, statewide firm that does a lot to help promote startups and SMBs, any technology across North Carolina. And on that panel, we talked a lot about AI and the future of AI, and the fact that we’re just now starting to meet the promises of what AI was back in the ’70s and ’60s when it started coming up and people started dreaming about all of these different things. And now, as we start to put more and more of those in reality, the fun thing is people don’t even realize how much of it is under the hood and your day to day actions. You don’t even realize it’s there, it’s around you, it’s participating in the world and it improves your life without you even really even realizing it.
And so I think as small businesses and medium businesses, as we move into that and we embrace that, I think it will actually give us more competitive advantage. It gives us the ability to operate at scale that we would have 15, 20 years ago looked at and been envious of the enterprise. And now we say, “No, no. We can compete. That barrier to entry is now much lower”.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.