Data or Die? How Analytics Play a Vital Role in Your Business

March 04, 2013

Warning: If analytics are not at the core of your business, you will be going out of business. This according to Gartner, Inc., the world's leading information technology research and advisory company. Their vice president Bill Hostmann was quoted earlier this year as saying, “Organizations that do not move analytics into the central part of both their IT strategy and business strategy are not going to meet their business objectives or even survive in the new world of realities we are facing.”

Robert St. Louis, information systems professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business, agrees.

“Evidence-based decision making and the ability to forecast are essential for a business,” says St. Louis. “Analytics encompasses both decision making and forecasting. Companies that don’t rely on these are more than at a disadvantage, they are going to go out of business.”

Harsh words for a hard reality that every company – no matter the industry – is facing: focus on the analytics.

But one of the biggest challenges is finding the talent and resources. A 2012 survey by the Accenture SAS Analytics Group found that 72 percent of companies planned to increase their spending in analytics; however, 60 percent of those same companies said they don't have the skills required to effectively use analytics.

Where does that leave companies? They understand it’s necessary, but they don’t have the knowledge or resources to implement it within their organization.

Building a Data-Driven Workforce

It all begins with creating a new way of thinking, says St. Louis.

“In our programs, we engage on this core issue: How do you make sense out of the mass of data that is out there?” he says. “Nobody can just look at the raw numbers and see what they mean. And that’s tricky. It requires a different way of thinking.”

“First, you have to make sure you have good data or the single version of the truth,” St. Louis continues. As Will Rogers said: “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you do know that just ain’t so.”

St Louis explains that the W. P. Carey School’s undergraduate Computer Information Systems (CIS) program focuses on this: the single version of the truth. It builds more on the hard skills of how to collect and store the data in a manner that remains consistent over time, and how to distribute that data to the people who need to use it in a timely manner and understandable format.

The Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) focuses on leveraging information technology, information management and evidence-based decision making, while the new Master of Science in Business Analytics (MS-BA) extends to supply chain issues and, in particular, how to use information to optimize that supply chain.

The skills taught in the CIS and MSIM programs have proven to be very helpful to companies.

“Analytic and problem-solving abilities are huge for the new wave of workers,” says John Ronan, university relations specialist for PetSmart who has recruited students from the W. P. Carey School of Business. “For entry-level positions, we need people who can analyze data and work with large amounts of data, and who are comfortable working in Excel. These are becoming more basic necessities versus specialized skills.”

“And as a company that doesn’t do a lot of IT recruiting,” continues Ronan, “I really like when CIS graduates couple their analytic skills with other really good business skills. It shows me that they will both bring value and be flexible.”

Stephanie Gonzales, technology risk manager with Protiviti who also works with the candidates from the W. P. Carey School of Business, agrees that business analytics is a requirement in the workforce these days.

“If you had asked me 7-10 years ago who I would be looking for to fill roles in our organization, I would have told you that, ‘I’m primarily looking for major X and Y. And the employees will only be doing X and Y,’” says Gonzales. “But now with the organization changing and how it has morphed with the market, we’re really expanding our service offering to our clients and, as a result, we’re looking for people with more technical capabilities. It’s just a necessity.”

It’s a necessity, but it’s not everything.

“We rely heavily on critical thinkers,” continues Gonzales. “The students from W. P. Carey who have come to us have not only been skilled, but have also been professional and well positioned to interact with our clients. As a consulting company, that is exactly what we’re looking for.”

Rupa Chenthil, recruiting manager with Sogeti, agrees.

“We have hired quite a few CIS and MSIM students in the past three years and that has worked out wonderfully for us,” she says. “They have both technical and business knowledge. Our growth is based on the number of people we hire and most of the students we have hired out of ASU have been CIS students. They have simply performed the best.”

Predictive Analytics – W. P. Carey’s Secret Sauce

Why are the W. P. Carey students performing well? It could be because they focus on a very important skill: predictive analytics.

“Managers have to make a shift from running reports on historical data to predicting what is going to happen in the next month, quarter or year,” says St. Louis. “The only way to do this is through predictive analytics. In order to use predictive analytics, you have to get used to working with models, because models are the only thing that enable you to predict. Models enable you to filter out irrelevant data, so instead of inundating people with reports about what happened in the past, you identify what your key performance indicators are, what drives those key performance indicators, and what you need to do in the future in order to be successful. That’s the mindset we try to get into our students.”

“It’s not where you’re at that is important,” St. Louis continues. “It’s where you’re going that is important. And that’s what the models do for you. They tell you not only where you’re at, but where you’re going to be in the future. And they also let you see what’s driving where you’re going to be in the future so that you can figure out where to apply resources.”

“If a company is going to be successful, it needs to have a culture of continuous improvement. Every employee needs to be asking, ‘Is this adding value?’ And if it’s not adding value, get rid of it. If it is adding value, support it. A company simply cannot answer those questions without data.”

Accomplishing this culture shift requires a shift in thinking, says St Louis.

“The value of these programs is that we change the way students think,” he says. “When people come out of this program, they are always going to be asking the question about what is adding value and what is not adding value. And they will be looking for ways to reallocate resources from things that aren’t adding value to the things that are adding value. That’s what companies need employees to be doing. That’s the secret to success. Much of innovation is incremental rather than disruptive.”

Chenthil agrees.

“The analytic skills are so important to us,” she says. “Consulting is a very dynamic profession and these CIS students are really versatile too. Maybe it’s because they go through accounting, economics, computers and information systems. There is just so much covered in the CIS program that has been really helpful to us as an organization.”

Data and Done? Not so Fast

Recruiters agree that analytics are a must. But first impressions are also very important.

“The first impression is a very lasting one,” says Ronan. “One way we get resumes is by interacting with students on campus. I stress the value and importance of attending career fairs and attending information sessions of companies that students are interested in because that is a great opportunity to make that face-to-face interpersonal connection.”

“First impressions are really important,” agrees Gonzales. “If someone is professional with me, I can expect that they will be professional in front of the client.”

“We are looking for both technical and business skills – communication skills – and a good personality,” says Chenthil. “We are looking for the attitude and aptitude, the drive to learn and succeed. We have found this combination with W. P. Carey students and are happy to be working with them.”