How data collection automation can lead to better decision making

The typical data collection process within companies is often fraught with challenges. Just the magnitude of it can create issues when it comes to formatting, reading and interpreting data. And data can also quickly become dated, either because of issues with the consistency of collection or where visibility relies on manual entry.

“Companies often make real-time decisions based upon reports comprised of old, ‘stale’ data,” says Mike Fieseler, vice president of business development at EOX Vantage. “That’s akin to managing in the rearview mirror.”

Fortunately, there are now a variety of ways to automate gathering and consolidating that data.

Smart Business spoke with Fieseler about how automating data collection leads to better quality data and improved decision making.

What does the typical data collection process look like?

Companies have two types of data that they’re bringing together: internal and external data. The key is merging the data in a fashion that makes it usable information.

External data can come from many sources, including vendors. Data collection will increase exponentially once businesses start to incorporate more data from Internet of Things-enabled devices. All of these come in a variety of formats. Many times it requires manual data entry to be combined with internal data.

Internal data comes from standard systems, like an ERP or CRM. Each of these systems typically has a reporting module that enables companies to visualize the data and export it. The challenge, though, is that many of these systems don’t talk to each other. So, companies end up with data exported onto Excel data sheets that are siloed, requiring someone to merge them. This can lead to data that quickly becomes dated.

What are the benefits of automating data collection?

People don’t typically like manual data entry. It’s boring, and that can lead to a lack of attention, which often leads to mistakes.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are automated data collection solutions that can help with this process, as can file transfer protocols (FTPs) that bring in cells and Excel formulas together to create data summaries.

The payoff of automation includes cost savings through reduced labor. It’s also likely to be a faster turnaround, better quality and expanded data to use for analytics, which leads to a better customer experience and perhaps more sales. Automation also enables companies to redeploy their workforce into more challenging roles, which keeps them motivated and should help reduce the turnover companies might otherwise see.

How can this lead to better business decisions?

Companies today are combining internal and external data to produce remarkable insights, in real time, enabling much faster responses to real-time demands. Traditional approaches often only capture events that have already happened, sometimes months in the past. That can slow reaction times. Digitally driven consumers, however, might not be patient, and could flee to businesses that can offer a better customer experience informed by up-to-the-minute data.

What challenges can accompany automated data collection?

The initial challenge is targeting the right projects. To do that, companies should step back and identify the areas where the business is experiencing backlogs. That process can be informed by feedback from clients — understanding their needs and expectations. They should also look to their staff, those who are the subject experts, to understand, at a service-based level, what those customers want and how to address their issues.

Companies also need to select a toolset that will enable them to put solutions in place that address those issues. Those tools should be flexible — able to be used not only for one specific solution but also for future tasks.

It’s also a good idea to have people who are familiar with that toolset Make sure your employees have adequate training. That could mean bringing in experts from the outside, whether hiring them full time or using consultants, to help with implementation.

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How APIs improve connectivity, visibility in data

Businesses should use data they collect to validate decisions, measure performance and find areas of improvement. To do that, data should be visible, consistently formatted and shareable. But it’s typically not.

“Business data often needs to be formed into a better, more consumable shape,” says Mehul Kenia, a product architect at EOX Vantage. “That’s usually because it’s stored in discrete systems, even when companies take a cloud-based approach to storage. That makes data hard to link for a clear, holistic picture.”

Enter Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). This data management solution can add value to data, offer real-time data and generally make things more efficient.

“At their core, APIs are really about getting apps and systems talking to each other and sharing data effectively,” Kenia says.

Smart Business spoke with Kenia about APIs — what they are, how they’re used and why companies should implement them in their organizations to improve how information is shared and utilized.

Catch the full conversation on APIs with Kenia on the Smart Business Insights Podcast!


What are APIs and how can they help a company more effectively use its data?

APIs are not new, but they’ve grown in popularity and use since at least the early 2000s. At its core, API is a software layer that acts as a bridge to help various software programs and systems exchange data with each other in a structured format.

Typically, organizations use different lists for inventory, orders, addresses, contacts and other business information. Some of these are stored in a CRM, some in isolated databases, some on paper and others on spreadsheets. Having data locked away in disparate sources where it can’t be easily accessed and shared is an especially bad way to do business.

APIs easily connect with disparate apps and databases to create a customer application cluster ecosystem with a centralized data source. It means, in part, real-time access to data, enabling companies to publish accurate reports and updates.

How are APIs implemented?

Companies that use APIs can utilize other data services without building their own, and they have a low implementation expense for integration. For example, companies that are building an application that has a mapping function don’t need to store location data or try to capture satellite or street images. Instead, they could utilize Google’s mapping service to do that.

It’s not necessary to understand all the technical and business aspects of the domain, or know the details of how they are coded, to effectively use APIs. With real-time data access and updates, any change can be automatically pushed out even if the applications are in different formats or use different coding.

Why is this something companies should do now?

APIs are in use within many companies and their prevalence is growing in almost every industry. Many companies struggle to establish connected networks of systems or actionable data. API integration and personalization enable companies to gain otherwise unseen insights into users and how they interact with a company’s apps and systems. They are a great solution toward creating integration and visibility, and they help companies leverage data and expand their customer base.

APIs help streamline operations by minimizing issues that require technical skills and leveraging the power of connectivity. As more employees work remote, APIs can improve data security and validation, which is important because storing shared information in multiple places can create exposures.

Companies that are building a new application should build an API-based architecture. User interfaces are evolving every day with all the new devices coming out. Having the business logic behind the API gives companies flexibility to support multiple user interfaces and quickly create or change a user interface.

Those companies that aren’t already using APIs should connect with a service provider that can help them achieve operational efficiencies by tapping into the benefits of cutting-edge software. Creating a business workplace with improved technology can help any company stay ahead of the curve and focus on growth instead of concerns over sustainability.

Insights Digital Transformation is brought to you by EOX Vantage

How to introduce workflow automation in your business

Workflow automation, a key element of the solution strategies known as “digital transformation,” enables companies to automate various business processes. This can have a big impact not just on efficiency and accuracy, but on motivation and morale, as well.

“Where automation is used to reduce routine and redundant tasks, people can focus on added-value activities, which leads to greater job satisfaction and reduced turnover,” says Mike Fieseler, vice president of business development at EOX Vantage.

Automation can also stabilize processes and provide consistent results, decreased turnaround times and higher quality data and decisions. That efficiency often results in greater client satisfaction, which builds loyalty and return use. It also enables companies to gain greater visibility into their business processes and operations so they can quickly get out in front of changes in the marketplace.

Smart Business spoke with Fieseler about workflow automation and the benefits it can offer companies.

How accessible is workflow automation today?

Automation isn’t necessarily about complex processes such as predictive decision making; it can be as simple as an Excel macro or a few lines of code. The evolution of automation tools is making it affordable to businesses of all sizes.

Most companies are good candidates for automation. To determine where and how automation could be applied, executives should examine the challenges they’re facing and identify areas where they would benefit from improved accuracy, faster turnaround or quickly addressing workload peaks and valleys. You might also want to redeploy people to more important tasks. Email routing and document indexing, for example, are basic automation processes that will save the company money right up front. There are also keystroke automation and optical character recognition techniques to read data off documents that companies could deploy easily and get noticeable results. These can run 24/7, which expands your capacity beyond being a one-shift shop.

Complex automation may include giving team members ‘hints’ on the next step to take in a sales or service process, or the next question to ask based on a client/prospect profile.

There are many easy-to-use, self-service solutions available today that don’t require much in the way of IT support. Many times, they’re called ’low-code/no-code’ solutions. Companies could also find a vendor to help them that knows automation but also has some experience in their industry.

What benefit can workflow automation offer companies that are disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic?

COVID-19 has spurred many companies to look at how automation can help them. The new challenges facing businesses have led to implementing new processes to address their new realities. For many companies, automation is an answer to the question, ‘What can we do to better service our clients?’ That has brought a lot of attention to automation in the past few months from companies that probably would have taken years to get to that stage. In some cases, the companies that are the fastest to automate tasks are those that are going to be positioned to gain a significant advantage when the market normalizes.

How should companies go about exploring automation as a solution for their operation?

Companies that lack the internal technical knowledge to deploy a workforce automation solution should find an outside provider, preferably one that has industry experience and expertise to tackle the task that’s been identified as a good candidate for automation. It’s best to find a provider that has cross-platform experience and can come at it from a consultative standpoint, not one that’s predisposed to a solution that comes from a single product.

Implementing automation involves a cultural change that can be significant. Companies need to have an operational change management in place, as some employees are going to struggle to make the link between automation and their job, as well as how both of those fit into achieving the company’s strategic goals. These are important considerations to make to ensure the transition is successful.

Insights Digital Transformation is brought to you by EOX Vantage

How to remain efficient and productive when working remotely

Many companies understand the importance, or at least the utility, of cloud platforms and have migrated a great deal of their systems and applications there. Some have digitized processes as a way to save time and money and help move staff to more productive tasks. In these cases, employees are comfortable working and accessing information on the cloud.

“That’s really helped them minimize the loss in productivity or efficiency that companies with only on-premise systems likely experienced when, suddenly, their workforce was compelled to work remote,” says Sudhir Achar, CEO of EOX Vantage.

Still, there have been snags making the transition to an almost entirely remote working situation, some of which could have been avoided by the implementation of a tested business continuity or disaster recovery plan.

Smart Business spoke with Achar about the tools companies can use to stay productive and efficient as they switch almost entirely to a remote work environment.

How do business continuity and disaster recovery plans play into the move to a remote work environment?
The beauty of having a business continuity plan or business disaster recovery plan is you’ve already simulated what your processes and the roles of essential people look like if business is disrupted by some type of disaster.

That positions a company to be at least 75 to 80 percent prepared to cope with a disaster, at least in terms of moving their operations to a remote work environment. Testing validates whether the continuity plan that is in place, as well as its contingency plans — plan B and plan C within the business continuity plan — is effective or it needs a tweak . That level of preparedness is really valuable.

What the pandemic has revealed about these plans is that companies, if they have a plan at all, often put it together and never battle test it. This pandemic is showing many that they have a plan in name, but not a plan in practice.

How do companies determine what tools and remote support should be in place to facilitate remote work?
Ideally all employees will be working from dedicated company laptops. There are also endpoint solutions that will filter out all malware and ransomware from all the incoming and outgoing traffic. There should also be remote desktop connection software installed on all laptops in case any technical support is needed. And IT personnel should be available by phone, email and chat tools that instantly connect employees with IT support to resolve simple issues. For many companies, a lot of this security software and IT support is already in place, which means the transition in this time of disruption has been fairly seamless.

What benefits does an enterprise operating system offer remote teams? 
An enterprise operating system is a collaboration tool that gives teams visibility in terms of all the data coming in and out, as well as transparency in terms of the quality and timeliness of deliverables. It keeps projects in front of everyone’s eyes so they can see both progress and changes, and that helps people stay on track.

Enterprise operating systems also offer integration with other applications such as chat, video conferencing, project management or just basic timesheet features. All of those combined in one platform can be a really powerful business continuity tool. Working remotely means you can’t just pop your head over the cubicle wall to talk to someone.

Enterprise operating systems give visibility into what people are working on and how things are progressing. You can see what tasks are being assigned, their timeline and progress, and have a way to give real-time feedback. CRMs, similarly, offer a way to monitor client contacts and how things are moving through the sales funnel.

With so many people working from home, it’s important to have the tools that can make remote work easier while keeping productivity and efficiency as high as it was in the office. Businesses that find themselves struggling to transition to a remote work environment are hopefully more willing now to explore ways to digitize processes and adopt software that can keep everyone, regardless of where they are physically, in the loop.

Insights Digital Transformation is brought to you by EOX Vantage

How to get your business data under control and create more value

Organizations don’t always have complete control over their data. Perhaps, a third party hosts it, the data isn’t in the right format for those who need it, or employees are spending time manually inputting data or moving it from one system to another. However, data that isn’t controllable, accessible or shareable is pretty much worthless. It can’t be used to improve business decisions.

If, for example, a company’s data is on a third-party website, it may be unstructured and mixed in with other information. Employees might have to manually log into the third party, download Excel sheets, pull out the needed information and recopy it into a new, structured Excel sheet. This scenario — a true spreadsheet nightmare — isn’t uncommon, but the right technology tool, which includes automating some manual processes, can help companies manage their data. This, in turn, can decrease errors and increase efficiencies.

Smart Business spoke with Sudhir Achar, CEO at EOX Vantage, about gaining control or full access to your data.

Why is it so important to have data in a format that’s available and accessible?
Many companies have policies about data architecture, like ensuring the format is correct and that data automatically populates into business systems. The more you can make data accessible and shareable among the people who need it, the more valuable it is. It, then, can be utilized to reduce time and errors, simplify and accelerate processes, improve visibility, and create hard cost savings by utilizing staff for more important assignments. Sometimes, however, the data is controlled by a third party. Even if the information is easy to find and track, if that third party’s website goes down for any length of time, your business could be left scrambling. That’s why it’s good to set up processes to scrape that third party’s files and get your information under your own control.

These outside parties may be able to provide an application programming interface (API), which can give access to data and allow an organization to port the information into a different application. An example would be if you wanted to integrate your customer relationship management system with HubSpot. HubSpot could provide an API to enable you to sync all of that data into your own product. If the third party won’t provide an API, companies can still utilize technology tools to gain control of that data.

And in either scenario, it’s best to set up parameters that can automatically bring that data into a spreadsheet, email, PDF, etc. Another best practice is to have that data input into an enterprise operating system, so the data can be pulled in with other data, which provides visibility and control as your business leaders use real-time data to make more informed decisions.

If an organization wants to add clarity to its data, what are some best practices?
Start with the low hanging fruit — the processes that are most repetitive and take the most time. It is important to look at the top line and what is going to have the most impact.

A good way to determine how to scrape data to move it from one system to another is to picture a Venn diagram with two circles, which encompass the visions of the CIO and CEO. The CEO will understand all the business information, but may not consider all the aspects that an IT professional would identify. The area in which the two circles intersect holds the most relevant information or the most necessary datapoints to scrape. For example, a CIO might recommend 25,000 datapoints, while the CEO selects 300,000 data points. In addition to finding the common datapoints among those, a technology consultant can help you determine what you really need. In this case, the final data scrape was consolidated down to just 850 datapoints.

Companies also should not jump headfirst into any new technology buzzword that comes along. Instead, perform a solution analysis with the assistance of a reliable consultant. Remember, in terms of successful digital transformation implementation, it’s not possible to read the entire book at once. First you must start with the preface to understand what lies ahead, and then you can take your digital transformation chapter by chapter.

Insights Digital Transformation is brought to you by EOX Vantage

How technology helps you ride out regulatory and business changes

Staying legally compliant is an ongoing challenge for business owners, especially when disruptive regulations like California’s Assembly Bill 5, or gig worker bill, pass swiftly with little time for feedback.

AB 5 is aimed at Uber and Lyft but could hit a number of companies that rely heavily on independent contractors. The bill went from nonexistent to being passed in a 30-day window. While companies are fighting hard to overturn it, the law is a good case study for how technology can step in when you’re reeling.

Smart Business spoke with Sudhir Achar, CEO at EOX Vantage, about how digital transformation  can help with such business challenges.

How do laws like AB 5 play into business operations?

Though a Superior Court judge ruled in January that they are exempt from the gig economy law, if appealed, under AB 5 thousands of independent contractors could potentially be reclassified as employees. This means companies would need to provide solutions that help independent contractors meet the law’s requirements to remain compliant — like incorporating and maintaining their independent status — or else bring them on as employees. In addition, a handful of states are considering similar legislation.

Regardless of whether AB 5 stays in effect long term, the law means companies are scrambling to ensure their operation will stay compliant because it changes how they need to interact with certain parts of their business. The law also impacts many more companies than lawmakers intended — and unintended consequences are a common occurrence with many regulations.

How can companies deal with new, changing or restrictive regulations?

Regulation, which can be reactionary, often drives innovation. While sometimes legislation is talked about ad nauseam, other times actions can happen vigorously and swiftly and completely transform a business model.

All regulation requires companies to track and maintain relevant information showing compliance, so there is something available for auditors if they come knocking. Automated technology and digitization help companies track and maintain that complex data without adding resources, such as additional employees. They can make sure businesses keep pace with changes to their business condition, especially in a heavily regulated industry like transportation, where there’s a lot of paperwork.

Does digital transformation apply to more than just regulatory changes?

Utilizing technology to govern and streamline data doesn’t just apply to regulations that may need to be audited in the future. Proactive, smart executives explore using technology like an enterprise operating system (EOS) to improve how they operate every day.

An EOS platform facilitates the rapid delivery of workflow automation for virtually any paper-based or electronic process in days, as opposed to weeks or months with other platforms. In one example, a logistics provider wanted to automate the process of onboarding more than 4,000 independent contractors. The process had been paper-based and processed manually. It also required duplicate data entry that cost the company valuable time and money. 

By adding EOS technology, the logistics provider could have independent contractors walk themselves through the verification process and purchase their own insurance. What used to take four to eight hours became 30 seconds, and the streamlined process helped the business have more capacity to move trucks and build revenue. In addition, the software included safety videos, so each time drivers had a claim, they were automatically prompted to complete a safety program to remain compliant.

The need for this kind of digital transformation is something that many businesses face in their typical operations. When you add the burden of regulations to that, it only makes sense to talk to experts about utilizing technology to reduce your operational costs, improve your quality and boost your revenue.

Insights Digital Transformation is brought to you by EOX Vantage.