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by Michael Thompson, 2013 MBA Candidate
During orientation week in the muggy heat of August 2011, the members of Tippie’s incoming Full-Time MBA class got to know one another while traversing obstacle courses and rope pitfalls at Camp Wakonda in Northeast Iowa. After a day of recovery, they had to tackle an even more difficult obstacle: a group project to figure out how to monetize Twitter, complete with a presentation of their findings to “Twitter’s Board of Directors.”
Most of the groups recommended employing various forms of data mining or other types of business analytics as a way to derive value from Twitter’s vast treasure trove of information, notes Professor Gary Gaeth. These ideas are similar to ideas circulating within the tech industry regarding how to maximize the value of Twitter, as well as a number of other companies. Whether or not all of the Tippie teams knew it consciously, many of them instinctively realized that we have entered into the “Age of Big Data.”What exactly is “Big Data?” It is a term that recently entered the business lexicon to describe the exponentially increasing importance of business analytics to the operations and strategy of companies within a wide range of industries. As described by Professor Barrett Thomas, Faculty Director for the Tippie Strategic Innovation Academy, “business analytics is the scientific process of solving business or societal problems using insight gained from data and quantitative methods.”
In its broadest form, business analytics consists of taking existing data and deriving new insights or other value by processing that data. It could be as simple as looking for trends in a company’s sales history. If sales are highest in December during the holiday season, a company knows to deploy additional resources in order to maximize its profits. Frequently, however, business analytics can become infinitely more complex, and often, half of the battle is often defining what exactly it is that you are trying to accomplish with your project.
One of the many opportunities for students to learn more about business analytics was the 2012 Strategic Innovation Forum held on April 27, 2012, entitled Analytics: Data-Driven Innovation. According to Meg Thompson, Business Director for the Tippie Strategic Innovation Academy, “a great deal of innovation is currently being driven by improvements in business analytics, which is why we decided to devote an entire Forum this year to the subject. It has always been the case that business analytics drives innovation. But with the massive quantities of data being generated through use of the internet, improvements in computing speed, data storage and other technologies, we will only continue to see more innovation and improvements being driven by business analytics.”
Business analytics are even being used to improve processes right here at Tippie. In addition to his research in areas such as logistics management and vehicle routing, Professor Thomas teaches operations management, supply chain management, rapid continuous improvement and other analytics and operations-focused courses to Tippie MBAs. He also found time to use analytics along with lean management techniques to drive process improvements at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Infusion Suite.
Several of this year’s projects at Tippie’s Business Solutions Center involved consulting with companies to help maximize the value of their vast stores of information, or to find trends within publicly available information in order to help guide a company’s strategic direction. Rich Boulger, Director of the Business Solutions Center explains “one team is building a model to predict the future direction of U.S. housing prices. You can imagine the value that this model could have to any company involved in home construction."
Another Tippie MBA consulting team was tasked with sorting through a company’s proprietary database of information in order to realize attainable value—truly making something from nothing. Boulger notes, “this particular company has a massive database of unique information about a particular industry unlike any other company in the world would have. The solution we are tasked with finding is what value we can realize from that information. Can we package it and make it more meaningful to the client? Can we translate it into information that the client could offer to others as a service? These are big questions that are in the process of being answered at a number of companies.”Business analytics is increasingly permeating many aspects of the Tippie MBA experience, just as Tippie’s graduates can expect to encounter it upon graduation. More Tippie graduates can expect to start new careers specifically in this discipline, while others are gaining a foundation in a subject that is likely to impact the next stage of their career, regardless of their career focus.