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Is “Undercover Boss” any match for big data?

When Michael Rubin was president of GSI Commerce he figured one way to get a ground-level look at how his sprawling enterprise worked would be to appear on the emmy-winning TV show “Undercover Boss.”

He no doubt gained some valuable insight masquerading as a working stiff for the popular CBS reality show in 2009. He also clobbered a GSI warehouse worker with a box the size of Manhattan while working in the trenches, a misstep that he later only half-joked had him worried about the injured worker suing the pants off the company.

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“GSI is done,” Rubin said, recalling his first thought before a crowd at the Shop.org conference last fall. “We’re going bankrupt and the litigation is starting right now.”

He could have saved himself the drama.

We’ve reached a time when big data is the new “Undercover Boss.” Granted, terabytes of data being combed and crunched and crystallized in the cloud doesn’t make for riveting TV. Certainly not as riveting as the big boss messing up on the loading dock at GSI, which before it was purchased by eBay ran warehouse and shipping operations for e-commerce companies. But data can lead to some surprising and valuable insights of its own.

Rapidly evolving technology and data-handling practices have provided top executives with a view into their businesses unlike any that has been available before. Want to know who your customers are? Data can tell you. Want to know where to open your next store? Data has your answer. Want to know what isn’t selling and what is selling — or more importantly, what will sell? Data is your friend. Want to know who is working hard and who is hardly working? Again, data will tell you. Wonder whether employees are engaged and happy in their work? Data has got your back.

The stories of bosses learning by data, rather than by doing, are everywhere:

  • Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer didn’t see the need to put on Groucho glasses and a wig to slip into the company cafeteria to find out whether employees who said they were working from home were actually working. Instead, she went to the data — the VPN logs that clearly showed that Yahoo’s work-at-home cohort was at home plenty, but not signing on to work nearly enough. The revelation led to Mayer’s 2013 edict that all Yahoos report for duty in person in the office. It caused, as you might recall, quite a stir.
  • Executives at The Fresh Market didn’t pose as grocery baggers in order to discover that they had been wrong about where their best customers came from. Rob Koch, vice president of real estate for the 170-store chain, told an audience at the National Retail Federation convention last month that it was data that blew-up execs’ notion of who they should be marketing to. When the company recently stepped up its data game, he said, it realized that its most valuable customer was not someone from the surrounding neighborhood who stopped in frequently. “Our average customer was actually there about once a month,” he said, “for a special occasion, which becomes a very different shopper to target, to market to, than somebody who lives nearby, who is there three times a week.” Rather than focus on getting three-times-a-week shoppers to shop five times a week, Koch said, The Fresh Market executives worked on getting monthly visitors to shop twice a month.
  • Chipotle executives turned to big data, rather than stealth, to keep an eye on its food supply chain. The fast-casual restaurant promises that its ingredients come from sustainable sources and animals that are naturally and humanely raised. The company has an intricate system of location and product numbers, bar codes and container codes that relies on cloud computing to keep track of just where the food it serves is coming from.
  • And there was no need for the C-suite dwellers at UPS to don brown uniforms and drive the boxy company trucks through suburban streets to figure out the best way for drivers to get from point A to point B and C, D and E. They looked to the staggering amount of data generated by orders, pricing, mapping and came up with the most efficient routes to run amid a big change in the nature of their delivery business brought on by e-commerce and the increase in deliveries to private homes.

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It’s all part of a world in which bosses and line workers alike are increasingly embracing the idea that data wins arguments. Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp, a platform for employee surveys, says he’s seen the value that data and data analysis provide in the field of human resources.

HR professionals get into the field, Elzinga tells me, because they have a knack for understanding people and how people and organizations interact.

“The challenge that they often have, is they all know roughly what the issues are, but it’s very difficult to get everybody else in the company on board to actually do something about it,” says Elzinga, whose company is based in Melbourne, Australia. Data, he continues, “let’s that person actually mount an argument. It allows people to have a conversation at a much deeper level.”

In fact with data, the boss can dig pretty deep. Some companies are diving into employees’ inboxes and calendars to figure out who is wasting whose time. It’s a growing trend, called “people analytics,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

It’s clear that big data provides an incredibly powerful tool. We are fast approaching the point where CEOs will be able to deploy data in a way that leaves no stone unturned. And while the ability to access that sort of information will be a good thing for the business, there is no way it will ever be as much fun as watching the big boss assume a fake identity and flail away at a job he asks his or her employees to do every day.

Photo of Sucharita Mulpulru and Michael Rubin courtesy of the National Retail Federation and photos of Fresh Market by Natalie Maynor and featured photo of UPS trucks by US Department of Labor published under a Creative Commons license

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.