Add Some Empathy to Your Data Analytics


If I ask you to imagine a New Delhi street scene, you'd likely picture bustling chaos with, inevitability, motor scooters zipping every which way. But are analytics and empathy in your mind's eye? They ought to be.

You see, Hero MotoCorp, the world's largest producer of two-wheeled vehicles, likely made many of those motor scooters you envisioned. And, as we learn in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article, "The Benefits of Combining Data With Empathy," Hero MotoCorp stands out among companies in its use of "evidence-based empathy grounded in data analytics."

Right about now, if you're like me when I first read that phrase, you're probably wondering, "Huh? What the heck is that?"

That, authors Ritu Agarwal and Peter Weill explain in the piece, is an approach through which companies apply data compassionately in response to opportunities and risks -- a particularly valuable strategy in volatile environments. In New Delhi, for example, Hero MotoCorp supplemented its basic customer relationship management data with a compassionate program aimed at facilitating purchases by females, a rapidly emerging market opportunity, the authors said. Agarwal, who is a professor and the Robert H. Smith dean's chair of information systems at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business (as well as founder of its Center for Health Information and Decision Systems), and Weill, who is a senior research scientist and chair of the MIT Sloan School of Management's Center for Information Systems Research, explained:

Young women, who were entering India's workforce in droves, were uncomfortable, even intimidated, about shopping for motor scooters. Some were concerned about how they would look astride a scooter. In response, the company designed a new product and a new program called 'Just 4 Her,' with its own showrooms staffed by women. Female customers can view how they look on the scooter behind the privacy of a curtain.

Would a manufacturer serving well-established markets in Asia, Europe, or North America go to such extremes to make potential customers comfortable? Would they think twice about wrapping up their data with empathy? I would say not.

Certainly companies are finding the need to balance gut, or instinct, with data; to develop an analytics culture; and to turn CRM programs into customer experience management programs. But I don't believe I've encountered any that would say they're thinking about data empathically. Agarwal and Weill put it this way: "It seems that many large companies have become so focused on optimizing their business processes and systems that they have become all too willing to forget about cultivating emotional connections with customers."

They caution that companies that place too much emphasis on process and systems could find themselves in a precarious position when trying to deal with unpredictable global business environments.

In order to detect and respond to shifting customer needs, companies need to show more, not less, empathy with their customers. Some companies have found an approach that achieves that -- one that joins three important capabilities: the ability to optimize business processes and technology, the ability to foster emotional connections and the ability to use data empathically.

They call this approach "softscaling." As you can see below, comprises optimizing business processes, informed empathy, and nurturing of the emotional connection.

I won't delve into softscaling here, but it suffices to say that "The Benefits of Combining Data With Empathy" is a fascinating read and well worth your time -- whether you're thinking about the challenge from a business or analytics perspective. The authors give us lots to think about -- so much so, in fact, that we've invited Agarwal and Weill to join us for an e-chat on empathic data use. Mark your calendars for Wednesday, November 14, at 3:00 p.m. ET, and get your questions ready. We'll be chatting here.

And in the meantime, share your thoughts on empathy and data analytics below. Does the idea resonate with you?

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors, Folio.net, and others.

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Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 11/1/2012 4:14:29 PM
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@mnorth -- harken back with only the foundest of thoughts, of course....

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 11/1/2012 2:22:07 PM
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Yes, and I would hope that when they receive it, they hearken back to their college professors who pled with them to remember to be empathetic when they achieved management status!

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 11/1/2012 1:05:06 PM
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So @mnorth, it sounds like what we need is some management training!

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 11/1/2012 12:49:56 PM
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It's hard to tell.  As they graduate and move into their first jobs, there are a lot of pressures.  They are the new kid on the block, and they're pretty much being told what to do, when and how.  They aren't empowered to ask questions like: "Is this the right thing to do for the customer?"  They may hearken back to my impassioned pleas to be humane and empathetic.  They may remember articles I made them read or discussion we had in class, but I get the sense that they often don't feel like they can do much about it.  If their boss says "Go through this list and find all the unprofitable customers so we can get rid of them", then that's what they do.  So I try to be real with them, I try to tell them that even if they can't do much about it at the start of their career, don't forget the lessons I'm trying to teach them so that when they become the supervisor, they can tell their new hires to be sure to analyze with empathy.

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 11/1/2012 12:29:17 PM
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@mnorth, glad to hear you're trying to instill an empathetic nature in your students. Is it working, do you think?

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 10/31/2012 12:00:27 PM
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This is a theme I'm constantly pushing with my students -- there are people behind those numbers.  I like to use the example of law enforcement profiling.  This is a controversial topic because it uses analytics to essentially brand some people as bad, or at least as a risk.  But those are real people.  We can't forget that even if the computer says they're bad, they're still a person with rights, feelings, etc.

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 10/31/2012 10:20:19 AM
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I'm not sure if this one flls under empathy as well... I'm thinking of brands that don't sell mini-versions of their products because their target market is the top tier of spenders. Yet if they can sell a smaller pack of that expensive perfume, someone outside that top group will be able to try it, and maybe use it occasionally.

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 10/30/2012 2:26:17 PM
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@callmebob, I was initially thinking that perhaps as companies embrace customer experience management programs over customer relationship management, they might become more empathetic. But the more I thought about it, the less I believe that. I think the focus in either case is in "managing" customers in order to get the most out of them vs. a focus on gaining a true understanding of customers and a desire to act on their behalf.

Re: I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 10/30/2012 2:18:35 PM
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There seem to be a cultural component at play as to the degree of empathy applied. In the European or western marketing approach, the product is the connection and point of emphasis, not much effort or consideration is applied beyond.

I feel your pain...or discomfort
  • 10/30/2012 2:02:04 PM
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Would they think twice about wrapping up their data with empathy? I would say not.

I think too many companies give their customers short shrift, and by doing so lose out. Before reading about the Hero MotoCorp and their women and scooters example in India I had seen an article from a disgruntled woman about sports bra manufactures - essentially criticizing manufacturers who didn't make an effort to design sports bras for large bosomed women. Maidenform probably has tons of data but minimal softscaling capabilities based on this example.

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