Apart from the obvious impact of months of lockdown on business turnover and profitability, one of the biggest challenges that faced organisations during the first few months of Covid-19 was a lack of data.

The world had never faced a situation quite like this, and given the dependence of businesses on data for strategy development and decision-making, most companies found themselves having to “shoot from the hip” given that there was a structural break in their data flows, and they had no access to particularly relevant customer, industry or economic data to analyse and inform their decisions.

Nine months later there is at least some data available, and the amount is growing quickly. Now, the question is how businesses can best leverage the Covid-related data they have access to in a way that enhances their effectiveness and growth. Perhaps more importantly, businesses need to consider how they can apply the available data to rethink the way they do business in an operating environment that is likely to be very different from what it was up until the end of 2019.

A good example of this is digitisation. Irrespective of the industry in which any business operates or the type of customers it serves, over the past few months virtually every organisation in the world has learnt valuable lessons about the need to digitise as many of their operations as possible.

Covid-19 has also provided useful lessons about the importance of tailoring the customer experience to what customers actually want or, at least, are most comfortable with. These are valuable insights, and businesses would be well advised to recognise them as such and analyse them to plot their growth journeys in the months and years ahead.

SA’s national lockdown forced a widespread strategic refocus for the majority of businesses in the country. Most became almost exclusively focused on survival and avoiding loss, whether of money, customers or staff. As the economy gradually grinds back into motion, that focus has to change again; most businesses now have the data they need to drive this shift from survival back to growth.

For most organisations, that return to sustainable growth is unlikely to come about by going back to doing things the same way as before the pandemic. The world is a different place now, and businesses need to think, strategise and operate differently to succeed in it.

One of the main lessons to come out of Covid-19 is that it is possible, indeed essential, to constantly critically assess whether there are other ways of doing business, or at least leverage assets and brand equity to expand operations and grow the market.

Gyms are a case in point. Before Covid-19 few if any gyms had considered that there may be business opportunities in digitising their offerings. The business model was based almost entirely on getting feet through the door of a physical building. When Covid-19 struck and social-distancing regulations meant gyms were forced to stay closed for the longest time the shortcomings of this model were laid bare.

To survive, gyms had to quickly rethink their business models, and most realised there were opportunities to continue operating online, in the process keeping their brands top of mind and even going some way towards meeting their contractual obligations to their members.

It would be folly for gyms to cast these augmented member offerings aside now that they are able to open their doors again, especially given that it is bound to take time for attendance numbers to rise to what they were last year. They have an opportunity to incorporate the crisis lessons and leverage associated member behaviour data to enhance their customer value proposition.

This is where the Covid-19 data businesses have been able to gather through the course of a challenging 2020 has the potential to be a game-changer for many organisations. But for this data to be a growth catalyst the perspective of businesses must change.

Instead of approaching data analysis from a “prevention of future loss” angle, in which they try to cope with the new normal, businesses need to invest time and resources in finding ways to leverage this valuable customer, employee and operational data to define the new normal for themselves — one that allows them to expand and enhance their operations to catalyse growth and achieve success and resilience into the future.

• Dr Seetharam is head of analytics, insights & research at FNB Business.

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