These 5 Companies Are Embracing a Digital Future—Driven by Data

Companies that made ongoing digital transformation a priority had an advantage going into COVID-19. Thanks to investments in data (and digital) capabilities, these five companies are widening the gap between themselves and their competitors.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 92% of business leaders reported that their business models were going to be disrupted by the rates of digitization. Today, that reality has only been magnified. Those companies that made ongoing digital transformation a priority had an advantage going into the crisis. 

And, thanks to investments in data (and digital) capabilities, these companies are widening the gap between themselves and their competitors. In the wake of COVID-19, many CEOs report that they’re able to move faster than they ever thought possible toward achieving their digital transformation initiatives. And that’s even true in industries that were hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, such as food services and travel, which rely heavily on in-person interactions. 

To see this process in action, look no further than these five companies. They are leveraging data and technology to drive their business forward. 

UnitedHealth Group Drives Growth With Digital Investments

UnitedHealth Group is the largest health insurer in the United States, based in Winnetonka, Minnesota. The company has made it a priority to invest in digital innovation and make it easier and more affordable for its 130 million customers to access healthcare. While much of the healthcare industry has struggled with the temporary suspension of elective procedures, UnitedHealth Group saw its earnings double during the second quarter of this fiscal year.

One factor critical to its recovery is UnitedHealth Group’s “not-so-secret weapon,” Optum. Optum is the UnitedHealth Group division for healthcare services, and has become one of the largest operators of medical clinics in the country. More than 10,000 care providers use Optum’s virtual visit platform—and as a result, the amount of data the platform collects (from medical records, wearables, doctor records, insurance providers, and more) helps Optum gather data-driven insights and develop algorithms to target specific patient needs. Optum has continued its fast growth even during the pandemic. 

“Optum is innovating on the frontlines of care delivery—developing screening protocols to identify patients who are likely to need hospitalizations, and collaborating with health and care delivery organizations to share this knowledge,” says David S. Wichmann, UnitedHealth Group’s CEO.

Using data, Optum was able to run surge predictions for the health systems it serves. It also quickly shifted more than 14,000 physicians to telehealth visits, responding quickly to the market need for virtual, rather than in-person, visits. This agility is powered by machine learning, cloud-based solutions, and analytics capabilities. And while Optum is a cutting-edge element of the business, comparable investments across UnitedHealth are powering a similar ability to quickly and effectively meet evolving customer needs.

“UnitedHealthcare is working at full speed, as well with partners across the health system, to address the current global emergency,” Wichmann continues. “UnitedHealthcare digital and telehealth services were ready, and, as a result, extensively used as a safe, simple, and free way to connect with care providers, either through a partner or directly with the patients' own doctors.” 

Ally Financial Dynamically Meets Customer Demand 

Since 2009, Ally Financial has been focused on a fast-growing customer trend: digital banking. And today, it’s one of the leading online-only banks in America, serving 8.5 million customers with their banking, investing, auto financing, home loans, and more. This success is due, in large part, to Ally’s ability to continually leverage its digital and data capabilities. With greater data accessibility and the infrastructure to respond quickly to new insights, Ally is able to remain nimble in the face of change—something that is critical to Ally’s future, according to Sathish Muthukrishnan, chief information, data, and digital officer for Ally. The company has to be “four or five” steps ahead, he adds.

This data-driven agility has served Ally well in the challenging market that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ally has used its digital capabilities to continue to put its customers first: The company was one of the first to offer loan deferments for customers struggling to pay. Prior to the crisis, the company had also migrated from its mainframe to a modern architecture. This modernization of Ally’s back-end architecture has paid off: By freeing up its data, the company was able to quickly test and deploy new, customer-facing capabilities in as few as two days to better support customers during the spread of COVID-19. One such innovation has been launching AI and bots to help customers manage and navigate the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

To continue to find success post-COVID-19, Muthukrishnan says, Ally is focused on creating a centralized data platform using open source technology to democratize analytics and drive innovation—at a speed that’s faster than ever. He says that the bank will accomplish this in continuous, micro-innovations that will modify or enhance its offerings. 

Tyson Foods Looks to Data, Puts a Tech Executive at the Helm 

Founded in 1935, Tyson Foods, Inc. is one of the world’s largest food companies and a leader in protein. It sees $40 billion in annual sales and produces 20% of the beef, pork, and chicken in the United States. Under the company's umbrella are popular brands such as Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm. And to stay competitive, Tyson has looked to move at the speed of technology companies—not the speed of its food industry competitors. 

Since 2017, the company has redoubled its efforts to “get Tyson into the modern age of technology,” says Tyson’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Scott Spradley, and “aspire(s) to be a tech company that happens to deliver protein.” That effort was characterized by integrating cutting-edge technology into its strategy, including hybrid cloud, AI, machine learning, and predictive analytics. Spradley told ZDNet that these technologies have empowered Tyson to drive efficiency in its operations, better track consumer preferences, and leverage cutting-edge technologies to improve production. Altogether, this digitization has given Tyson access to richer datasets, which, in turn, can power predictive models and future technologies—like computer vision. 

The food industry had a challenging start to the COVID-19 crisis, with closures, unprecedented demand, and struggling supply chains. However, Tyson’s commitment to data and digital transformation meant that the firm was ready to make agile changes to its operations to adapt and thrive.

In response to the pandemic, the company was able to use its digital capabilities to quickly put new testing measures in place and lean into robotics and automation in its factories. These are just recent digital upgrades; over the last several years, the company has invested heavily in its technology stack to remain customer-driven, according to Spradley. And data is at the heart of this transformation. Not only does data offer insight into customer behavior, the supply chain, and market demand, but it also powers product development, testing, and deployment of innovative solutions.

The company will continue its tech investments post-pandemic, and expects revenues to return as more restaurants reopen and orders resume. To ensure its digitization efforts are realized, Tyson recently announced Dean Banks, former tech executive, as its new CEO. 

Carnival’s Commitment to Innovation Endures

Carnival Corporation, one of the world’s largest travel and leisure companies, saw close to $3 billion in net income in 2019. Carnival serves customers not only around the world, but also across ages—“I cannot think of a demographic that we do not serve,” CIO Greg Sullivan says.

Over the last several years, the company has been looking to grow the cruise industry, hoping to reach some 75% of people in the United States who haven’t taken a cruise. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put a damper on travel in 2020, Carnival is expecting to move full steam ahead once restrictions ease. Future demand for cruises remains strong, with Carnival reporting that almost 60% of 2021 bookings made in the first three weeks of June were new (not repurposed credits from canceled voyages).

One of the major aspects of Carnival’s strong outlook is its prior investments in data and technology to optimize the customer experience. Sullivan says that executives “overlook [the fact] that not innovating is more expensive than innovating.” Carnival has made data and analytics a priority for identifying potential cruisers and providing a more personalized experience on board. On any of the Carnival vessels, Sullivan says, the company uses location-based data to help passengers do everything from navigating their ways around the ship, to finding the rest of their parties, and having something they ordered delivered directly to their locations. And on the back end, Carnival’s investments in data virtualization are helping keep computing costs low and maintain security and compliance, all while generating useful analytics.

Sullivan says he’s excited to invest in emerging technologies like biometrics and edge computing in the near future to further personalize the experience for customers once they’re back on board. Moreover, some of the cost-cutting measures implemented during the pandemic might make Carnival more profitable as the company comes out of it. 

J.B. Hunt Drives Digital Efficiency

J.B. Hunt is one of America’s largest transportation and logistics companies, with a team of more than 29,000 employees. Founded in 1961, the Arkansas-based company has decades of experience adapting to changing technological landscapes, and has made it a priority to stay ahead of the competition by making data-driven investments in its future. Today, the company is using data and innovative technologies to lead the $800 billion U.S. trucking industry through change. 

The company’s digital freight platform, J.B. Hunt 360, is one example of its successful implementation of technology to drive efficiencies in its supply chain. The platform allows J.B. Hunt to gather information about shipments and capacity across millions of drivers throughout the country—unearthing opportunities to increase efficiencies by matching the right load with the right truck at the right time. Before leveraging the platform, roughly one-third of drivers’ available hours were completely wasted because drivers were not driving, or were driving empty trucks. By making data more accessible across the entire business, the company not only has better visibility into its operations—it also has the opportunity to make fast, effective changes.

During COVID-19, J.B. Hunt has quickly improved safety for drivers and customers alike by launching tools like touchless proof of delivery. In addition to innovating through the pandemic, these data-driven measures have helped the company reach other goals, like driving sustainability and continuing its commitment to customer satisfaction.

“While still too early to call, at least we have some potential signs of inflection in the demand curve,” J.B. Hunt President and CEO John N. Roberts says. “We will look for more direction from import data, inventory levels, and retail sales information, as well as thoughtful input from our customers, to build confidence in the trends into the second half of the year.” 

Innovation Today Is the Key to Post-Pandemic Growth

The future has always held many uncertainties for companies—and that’s never been truer since the pandemic began. However, these companies have managed to use their digital capabilities to adapt and continue to find ways to grow despite the COVID-19 headwinds that have challenged so many industries. By investing into robust data capabilities and continuing to leverage new emerging tech, these companies are in the best positions to quickly identify and implement new opportunities that drive growth. 

Read more stories about data-driven innovation in the 2020 issue of Data Company Magazine

Suggested reading

How Proximus Is Helping Its Workforce & Country Stay Connected

Choice Hotels Is Winning Hearts & Trust With Digital Innovation

Women Leading Data-Driven Innovation: Echo Szeto, Morgan Stanley