Data and analytics, crucial tools in times of crisis, have proven their worth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even as restrictions have eased and people's behavior is reverting back to pre-pandemic norms with travel, dining in restaurants and in-person shopping all on the rise, data and analytics remain critical to understanding patterns and preparing for what might come next.
"There is no shortage of crises that make business more challenging, whether it's the lingering pandemic or all the geopolitical issues swirling out of the war in Ukraine," Tim Race, senior vice president of narrative and thought leadership at PR firm Method Communications, said on March 23 during Domopalooza 2022, the virtual user conference hosted by analytics vendor Domo.
"These days, to cope with crises, it's more important than ever to be able manage information, and that's where data comes into play," he continued. "It's not only about using data to cope with crises, but ideally to survive them and thrive in their aftermath. Coping with crises means making the best use of data."
Throughout the pandemic, perhaps no industries have been more critical than healthcare staffing and supply chain management.
Without enough staff to manage the ebbs and flows of COVID-19 surges, it's likely that more lives would have been lost than the nearly 1 million in the U.S. and 6.1 million worldwide who have died as a result of COVID-19, and hospitals would have been even more overwhelmed than they already have been at times during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, without fast-responding supply chain management, not only might more people have died due to delays in the delivery of medical equipment, but the needs of the public at large buying consumer goods would have been even more greatly affected.
There's a shortage of nurses in the U.S.
Tim RaceSenior vice president of narrative and thought leadership, Method Communications
Before the start of the pandemic, it was estimated that an additional 1 million nurses were needed, and the onset of COVID-19 only exacerbated the shortfall.
WorldWide HealthStaff Solutions (WHS), based in Charlotte, N.C., is a recruiter for hospitals and other healthcare organizations and matches them with qualified nurses and healthcare professionals.
One way WHS attempts to address the shortage of nurses in the U.S. is by helping nurses from other countries immigrate to the U.S.
"So many hospitals were already working with us to try to get many of their nursing positions filled with international nurses that are eager to come to the United States, and when COVID hit, that demand increased greatly," said Beth Vanderwalker, vice president of operations for WHS.
Many nurses abroad earn far less than they would make in the U.S., making immigration an attractive option. Meanwhile, their skills are in high demand by U.S. hospitals and healthcare organizations, Vanderwalker continued.
Getting those nurses into the U.S., however, proved difficult after the onset of the pandemic. Many government offices closed, and immigration became more difficult.
WHS, which used a CRM system to pull data but did not previously use a dedicated data and analytics platform, turned to analytics during the pandemic to find ways to expedite the immigration process and meet the needs of its healthcare clients.
Using analytics -- the organization deployed Domo's platform -- WHS is able to track every nurse as they go through the immigration process, identify where in the process bottlenecks occur and act proactively to expedite their immigration so they can be placed in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
Beyond that, WHS is now using analytics to track the need for nurses by location within the U.S. so the organization can prioritize locations for staffing.
"We use analytics in so many different ways," Vanderwalker said. "It's helping us with efficiency, it's helping us analyze the data, and as we share this data [across the organization], people can manage their own results and it reduces the need to micromanage."
It's even helping WHS work with Congress to make immigration faster for nurses abroad to come to the U.S., she added.
In one instance, 300 nurses were being held up from coming to the U.S. because their foreign embassies were closed. All that was left before they could immigrate was an embassy interview, according to Vanderwalker.
WHS shared its data with Congressional representatives, and members of Congress got in touch with foreign embassies and helped expedite those nurses' immigration.
Members of Congress "are aware of the demand and the need, so this data that shows where the bottlenecks occur," Vanderwalker said. "It's really important to have those numbers to support those conversations."
Supply chain management
Numbers that data and analytics make graphic have also been essential for managing supply chains throughout the pandemic.
A typical U.S. manufacturing supply chain begins with a consumer product often made abroad. The product is put on a container ship and sent to the U.S., where it arrives at a port and is sent to a warehouse. Once a consumer buys the product, it's then put on a truck and shipped.
"Before COVID, the whole system worked really smoothly," said Sharat Alankar, chief growth officer at Walker Edison, a furniture manufacturer based in West Jordan, Utah, and a Domo user. "It was a well-oiled machine, predictable. The best way to describe what has happened since COVID is that things that never happened started happening all the time."
For example, container ships that used to take 45 days to sail from factory locations to U.S. ports now routinely take more than 100 days, Alankar noted.
In addition, factories abroad have been shut down completely at times while online ordering domestically has increased so much during the pandemic that deliveries that used to take a few days now can take a few weeks.
That increase in online ordering has been particularly disruptive to supply chains, according to Alankar.
"There's been a channel shift from stores to online during the pandemic, and what we're putting through that e-commerce infrastructure -- the trucks, the warehouses and the rest of the supporting system -- is more than it can handle," he said.
Data and analytics have been the means by which manufacturers like Walker Edison have been able to manage their supply chains.
In particular, scenario planning has been crucial, according to Alankar.
Before the pandemic, questions around supply chains centered on, "What's happening?" and "What's going to happen?" Now, however, "What if we're wrong?" is just as important.
Analytics platforms that provide scenario planning capabilities enable organizations to model different situations to see their effect on the business and then plan for those possibilities.
Example scenarios include a factory that closes, a port that shuts down as Los Angeles did in late 2021, container ships from one region taking longer than expected and customer demand for a particular product going up or down.
"We've had to quickly model out these scenarios, understand the impact and then make decisions based on that," Alankar said. "Before [the pandemic], the future might have been a little more predictable, or there might have been one variation, and that impact is easy to predict."
In order to mitigate the effect of supply chain disruptions, data and analytics -- including analysis of customer behavior -- have led many manufacturing and retail enterprises to make alterations during the pandemic.
One example is that many retailers no longer limit Black Friday deals to just the day after Thanksgiving but instead spread the promotion over an entire month to smooth out the surge in sales.
"The thing we don't know is how much we're going to revert back to shopping in stores," Alankar said. "It doesn't seem like things will go all the way back to how they were in 2019, but it also seems like there's going to be a balance between the spike in 2020 and 2021 and where were in 2019."
Planning for the post-pandemic -- or perhaps endemic -- world is now the main challenge for many organizations.
Whether simply because of COVID-19 fatigue or the actual ending of the pandemic, as the Omicron surge has abated there's been a rapid return to at least some pre-pandemic norms. Many municipalities no longer have mask requirements, and industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as travel and dining, are seeing a surge in patrons.
What isn't known is whether another COVID-19 variant is about to arrive as Delta did in summer 2021 and Omicron did just before the start of 2022. What also isn't known is what will ultimately happen between Russia and Ukraine and what effect the war will have globally, and what other crisis yet unimagined might be looming.
What is clear, however, is that organizations are better versed in data and analytics than they were before the pandemic, and that data and analytics will be integral to navigating whatever comes next.
"It seems like the world has changed, and it's a little naïve to think it's going to shift back," Alankar said. "We thought that in 2020, but it seems like things have permanently shifted, and those trends sometimes take years to play out."
With processes like supply chains -- and certainty, in general -- unlikely to return to the way they were before the pandemic, data transparency is important, Alankar added.
Given the importance of data and analytics to decision-making in times of crises, the more people within organizations and their networks of partnerships who are educated by data and using analytics to develop forecasting models and make decisions, the better.
Similarly, Vanderwalker said data transparency will remain crucial going forward.
"Being able to share data is really important so we're not working in silos," she said. "It has allowed us to look at projections for strategic planning."
Among the key projections for WHS are the number of nurses graduating in the next few years and the number expected to retire, Vanderwalker continued.
In addition to enabling data transparency and strategic planning, WHS' deployment of data and analytics tools during the pandemic has enabled it to expand its services and grow as an organization, according to Vanderwalker.
"It drives innovation within an organization," she said. "And as we all know, innovation is what is going to sustain long-term success."