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Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the McIntire School of Commerce’s Robertson Hall, 12 expert panelists spent Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, discussing the dazzling opportunities and mind-boggling challenges associated with the hottest topic in business today: data analytics.
The daylong event—which comprised three focused and insightful panel discussions of the brave new world of data analytics; the opportunity for students to converse one-on-one with panelists over lunch; and three lively question-and-answer sessions—marked the inaugural Analytics Colloquium at the newly launched Center for Business Analytics at the McIntire School of Commerce.
Event panelists included Jeff Campbell (Engineering ’01), Vice President, Applied Predictive Technologies; Chris Enger, HRCP Associate Partner, McKinsey & Co.; Adam Haverson (A&S ’94), Senior Manager, CapTech; Todd Kennedy (Engineering ’96), Senior Vice President, Capital One; Kevin LeFew (Engineering ’89), Senior Vice President, The Teaching Company; Bill McComb, former CEO, Kate Spade & Co.; Cameron Meierhoefer, COO, comScore; Matt Mierzejewski (A&S ’05), Executive Vice President, RKG; Martin Stolfa, Vice President Commercial Analytics, Hilton Worldwide; Steven Tramposch, Vice President, Consumer and Market Intelligence, Heineken USA; and Mark Urbanczyk, Senior Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
“Every one of these panelists is a leader in the analytics space,” McIntire IT Professor and Center Director Ahmed Abbasi told the audience, noting that most were also representatives of the Center’s 10 corporate partners. “In class, we discuss theories of analytics; these folks are out there actually doing analytics on a day-to-day basis, and the real-world perspectives they bring are absolutely invaluable.”
Infinite Data, Individual People
Addressing such critical of-the-moment topics as how data analysis is revolutionizing business strategy and practice; how merchants are using analytics to meet—and shape—consumer desires; and the breathtakingly high-tech tools and processes through which consumer data are being collected and interpreted, the panelists’ message was clear: Data analysis is here, and it’s here to stay—but doing it right demands the very human wisdom of superb professionals able to draw on keen skills in business, technology, analytics, and communication.
Kennedy, Meierhoefer, and Urbanczyk kicked off the event with a discussion of what big data means to their respective organizations, stressing the client- and consumer-oriented insights that big data can offer—so long as it’s analyzed through the lens of clear goals and well-formulated questions.
“From a consulting standpoint, we’re really seeking to leverage big data as a driver of value for our clients,” said Deloitte’s Urbanczyk. Doing so, he pointed out, requires the ability to extract actionable insights from mega-oceans of data—which, in turn, requires the critical first step of identifying, with crystalline clarity, the tough problems to which clients are seeking insight-driven solutions.
Characterizing the derivation of meaning from data as the process of moving from “the art of the possible, to the art of the practical, to the art of the valuable,” Urbanczyk and his fellow panelists told the audience that, for all its light-speed technology, data analytics ultimately requires an artful human touch. Analytics-based conclusions, the three said, can prove worthless—or even problematic—if analysts build flawed models, have difficulty communicating with clients, or fail to understand the point at which consumers start to feel “creeped out” by organizations’ use of personal data.
“While big data can be incredibly powerful, you have to be able to understand its possible limitations,” Kennedy said, noting that success in the field requires curiosity, passion, superb problem-solving and communication skills—and, critically, a healthy dose of “good judgment and common sense.”
Give the People What They Want
Campbell, Enger, McComb, and Stolfa went on to discuss the rapidly unfolding potential of analytics in helping businesses understand—and shape—consumer needs.
Indeed, said Stolfa, the great potential of analytics—provided data are properly understood and categorized, and then interpreted by talented analysts who understand the business challenges at hand—is its power to distill the digital into the personal.
“Imagine you’re sitting in the airport, and your flight is canceled,” Stolfa said. “You tweet to your friends that you’re stuck, and you really wanted to go home, see your family, and eat a burger with guacamole on it. What if we could send you a push notification to come stay at the nearest Hilton hotel—and when you got there, we welcomed you to your room with a burger with guacamole on it?”
Enger pointed out that data analytics—by offering insight into what’s important to consumers, why they do the things they do, and who they are—has the potential both “to help companies align their products with consumer needs, and to deliver a benefit that no one else can deliver.”
Making it Happen
The colloquium closed with a discussion of some of the institutional challenges associated with the implementation of analytics-based strategies. Emphasizing the cross-functional nature of such strategies, Haverson noted the necessity of skill in managing internal corporate politics. “The single most difficult element in getting things done is bringing stakeholders together,” he said, stressing the importance of getting the various relevant parties involved early on in the process of developing a data-based strategy; measuring risks, costs, and value; and encouraging a culture of experimentation.
Haverson also noted a number of external, high-level impediments to the implementation of data-based strategies, including consumers’ growing awareness of a “creepiness factor”; the possibility of stricter legal limits on companies’ access to individuals’ data; and uneven and shifting trends in global legislation and politics.
The Future Is Now
Still, the panelists were unequivocal—and unanimous—in stating that data analytics is well on its way to becoming an integral element of business strategy, just as the Internet has. Moreover, the panelists said, data analytics, when done right, has the potential not only to add value to businesses, but to meet consumers’ needs in a way that enhances their lives. “In the midst of all this enormity and complexity,” said Meierhoefer, “we’re really seeking to understand people as individuals.”