Data Driven

Analytical tools and methods that help businesses mine information and make better decisions play a growing role in today’s global marketplace, and workers need to know how to acquire data and transform it into useful information.

Haoran “Shawn” Zheng, a new assistant professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship, Technology and Law, sees a need for students to learn these skills, so he and others in the Foster College of Business have crafted a business analytics curriculum that started this spring.

“In today’s environment, any job would require the employee to interact with some sort of systems, software and data on a daily basis,” he said, “If you present the skills to be able to work with data and generate useful information from it, that helps you get noticed in workplaces. For any student, from any major, this would serve as something that would stand out.”

Zheng said data and information are not the same. Extracting the information from data is only part of the task — using that information to make the right decision at the right time is equally important. “Anyone can collect data but not everyone can extract relevant information from that to support decision making.”

“We’ve always had data,” Zheng said. “We’ve had data analysis for a long time. Take forecasting as an example — traditionally we use historical data to make a prediction. But data analytics takes a more holistic approach, not only taking into account what happened in the past but other, contextual variables and to make these predictions more accurate. The most satisfying part is to be able to find something that you didn’t think was there.”

The results can sometimes be counter-intuitive. Zheng said retail powerhouse Walmart started using such analysis about 10 years ago and pinpointed what customers load up on before a hurricane.

“You would think people would get water, candles . . . they actually predicted people would buy strawberry Pop-Tarts®,” he said. “So (Walmart) stocked up and that’s what happened. Things like that you won’t be able to know without analytics. We often use our intuition and think we’re being rational, but the decisions we make are influenced by cognitive biases.

Other examples include assessing a customer’s credit risk using hundreds of variables or an auto insurer using personalized driving data and habits to tailor individualized coverage.

It’s not always a matter of dollars and cents. One of Zheng’s research projects involves working with Chinese hospitals to study inherent issues, such as long lines for appointments. Another aims to build a predictive model for those with chronic kidney disease.

“Within a year, with patients coming three times a week, one dialysis center would have a ton of data,” Zheng said. “Then, you have the non-clinical side — family history, economic status, social status, exercise, etc. All these factors come into play and we can derive a dynamic model as new patients come in. It would still depend on the doctor to make decisions, but we can assist … make recommendations based on the model.”

With degrees and a background in international business, Zheng earned his doctorate at Florida International University in information systems and business analytics. He sees his lack of a computer science background as a positive.

“I had to get caught up (with technology) but it definitely brought me perspectives a technical person might not have,” he said. “Nowadays, nothing is really isolated. Everything is interdisciplinary. That’s the essence of convergence – people working together.”

Recent software advances led to user-friendly dashboard applications for business that are also useful for students, Zheng said. He hopes these advances make business analytics more accessible for smaller companies. The field provides the ability gives the ability to sift out unnecessary or extraneous data and focus on extracting what is most meaningful.

“We have the capabilities now to track all the things we do — we just don’t know how to make sense out of it,” he said. “That’s the issue a lot of companies are facing, what to do with all the data they have.”

Data analytics correctly predicted that Walmart customers would stock up on strawberry Pop-Tarts® before a hurricane instead of water and candles.

— Bob Grimson ’81

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