Virtually every distributor I encounter understands that mastering data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) is essential if distributors are to survive and thrive in the digital age. However, very few leaders have a comprehensive game plan for turning their company into a data-driven business.

The two most common approaches to mastering data, analytics and AI are hiring data analysts and buying digital tools that are ready-made to implement turnkey AI solutions. These approaches may be useful, but they do not address the most fundamental challenge for distributors: distributors are people businesses. Without a strategy that addresses human barriers and aspirations, data initiatives will fall far short of their game-changing potential for dramatically improving distributor competitiveness.

I recently discovered an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Four Storytelling Techniques to Bring Your Data to Life.” In it, Nancy Duarte explores the power of storytelling for getting the most out of data analytics. The title immediately grabbed my attention, because our research for NAW’s Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series found that storytelling was a critical skill for creating a culture of innovation, one that was entirely unfamiliar to most distributors.

By telling customer stories about the challenges faced and problems solved, distributors can create actionable knowledge for distributor innovations. Then, by telling stories about innovative customer experiences, distributors can “toot their own horn” and make their progress known. Combined with foresight about the future of markets served, forward-looking distributors can build their brand and strengthen their customer and supplier partnerships.

As Duarte explains, storytelling is a potent tool for leveraging the power of data. As she points out, “The adage that our world runs on data means that decisions are being based on vast amounts of statistics.” There is a problem, however. It’s a blind spot she explained as “even though most corporate roles now work with data, it’s shockingly easy to forget that people generate most of it.” Duarte goes on to explain through storytelling, “leaders can bring a richer, more human understanding to the problem that the data reveals and better understand the opportunities it presents.”

In my experience, storytelling works because communicating in stories is part of the human condition. The ability to grasp insights expressed as stories is wired in our genes. Duarte explains that compelling storytelling works like a good book or movie — there are heroes and villains. Mysteries are understood. Challenges are overcome. She then offers four specific suggestions to getting started with storytelling. I’ve relayed them below and added my comments about applying them as a distributor:

  • Search for the hero and the adversary in the data. Most distributor data collections are generated by human actions. By identifying the people who can move the data in the right direction, every distributor can develop a plot for correcting problems, improving customer experiences or generating improved profits.
  • Speak with the people who generate the data. Data collections document what happened in the past. By talking with the people responsible for the data, analysts can understand the “why” behind the data and ask for predictions.
  • Identify and address conflict. In every story, a hero addresses a conflict. By identifying the hero in a distributor’s data, such as a warehouse worker, salesperson or marketer, managers can put people in charge of the solution. By achieving a favorable outcome and recognizing success, leaders can create a culture of innovation among all employees with every data story addressed.
  • Share context. A collection of data should never speak for itself. One of the dangers of significant data initiatives and artificial intelligence is that distributor data information substitutes for leadership. Every data story should include added context from related data discovered in investigations as well as human factors, customer implications, supplier partnerships and other qualitative story elements. This will help your leadership determine what next steps to take.

If data information is a fundamental force for driving a revolution, then distributors need new approaches for responding to threats and driving innovations. I’ve covered the role of data, supply chain operations and customer experiences in earlier blog posts:

If these articles don’t get your attention, nothing will. Distributors need an “all hands on deck” approach to mastering data, and Duarte’s ideas around storytelling offer a helping hand. Her book, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, goes more in-depth on the topic. I’ve ordered a copy and will share more profound insights in future posts. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing your ideas and experiences.

This post is number 8 of 10 in this series that addresses the critical requirements for distributors to become the acknowledged experts on B2B innovation. If you haven’t already, please read my earlier posts:

After my next two posts on B2B innovation, I will share feedback from distributors who reached out to me during the course of this miniseries. If you would like to share your feedback, please reach out to me at