Could empowering the frontline with data help businesses to stay resilient?

frontline staff

Sudheesh Nair, CEO at ThoughtSpot, discusses why empowering frontline staff with data could be critical for success post-COVID.

It doesn’t matter what industry or part of the world your business is in. COVID-19 has rewritten the rules. From the beginning, many businesses were paralysed in the face of the pandemic. The onset was faster and more pervasive than most businesses were prepared to handle. Realities on the ground were changing hourly. Crippled by legacy systems and rigid hierarchies, businesses struggled just to make sense of the changes, let alone do something about it.

As we begin to reopen, leaders need to reflect on the weaknesses the current crisis exposed, particularly when it comes to how they leverage their data. First, staring into a dashboard created by BI teams, without the context of the business realities, is a poor way to make decisions. Second, when there’s a critical business outcome at stake, everyone in the organisation should have access to these data insights; from the Board of Directors to the front-lines. After all, COVID is not the first crisis businesses have faced. And it certainly will not be the last.

Recent research from Harvard Business Review shows that 87 percent of organisations believe success depends on empowering and equipping frontline staff to make decisions in the moment. It makes sense that the frontline should have access to the same data as top level management; after all, these are the people that actually engage with customers. They know customers’ wants and needs better than anyone else, including executives. The companies that are empowering these team members are increasing productivity, improving quality of products and services, and seeing higher customer satisfaction.

Despite recognising this value, there is still a strong disconnect for many in saying that this empowerment leads to success, and doing it. In fact, the same study found that only seven percent of organisations are fully equipping their teams with the tools and resources needed to drive decision-making and autonomy. 

They understand that it’s the right thing for the business, but cannot do it. 

The Harvard Business Review study sheds interesting insights into this. In many of my conversations with business, technology, and data leaders, I’ll hear data quality issues or technical debt is keeping them from bringing analytics to their frontline decision makers. The research found that rationale is a facade executives cling to. The real obstacles come down to process and cultural issues – which falls under the purview of those very same executives. 

Companies that are empowering frontline workers to make data-driven decisions are championing this approach from the top. Executives are bought in on the notion a data-driven culture is critical to their corporate strategy, and are willing to take bold action to instil this culture in their teams.

What’s even more shocking, however, is how many executives at companies falling behind actively do not want their frontline teams making decisions. They openly admit they’re blockers for this kind of change. So-called ‘laggard’ companies, many of whom are within manufacturing, government, healthcare, and education, are much more likely to say their top management does not want frontline workers making decisions. And they’re suffering as a result.

Many of these executives will point to a lack of skilled or trained staff to apply insights as to the culprit. If only these data professionals were easier to find and hire. 

I challenge this outdated perception. While using data has historically required deep training and technical sophistication, new technologies and tools are available to bring analytics to anyone. Leaders need to recognise this shift and invest to train and re-skill their teams on how to apply insights, not navigate complex technology. 

To be resilient in the face of adversity, the openness to adaptation and evolution that is happening within the operational lines of business needs to permeate into the thoughts and actions of those at the top level, too. 

Business leaders that allow workers to lead from the front, equipping them with the tools to deploy their intelligence, experience, and empathy with quality data, ultimately look set to drastically propel better business results – in both the short and long term.

In today’s challenging and volatile environment, that could mean the difference between sinking or swimming. 

The world will not go back to pre-COVID-19 speed even after we eradicate this virus. Organisations should make the right changes to prepare for the new speed and demand from the modern consumer.

Sudheesh Nair

CEO at Thoughtspot

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