Grad Students Tackle Data-Driven Decision Making

By Paul Mugge

Here’s a Jeopardy answer: Accounting, marketing, supply chain, and….big data.

If you came up with, “What are business school subjects?” you’d be right. Congratulations!

If you’re still stumped, don’t worry. Big data might not be on most people’s radar as a college course, but it will be soon if CIMS Industrial Fellow Mike Kowolenko and his colleagues at the Poole College of Management at NC State have their way.

Kowolenko is teaching the College’s first-ever class on using big data to ramp up business intelligence, called “Data-Driven Decision Making.” A graduate-level class, it draws on Kowolenko’s decades of experience as a pharmaceutical industry executive as well as his more recent work with companies interested in finding answers to their problems—and opportunities– in the cloud.

But despite the high-powered computing and cutting-edge software involved in big data analytics, Kowolenko asserts that he’s not teaching rocket science.

“The overall goal of the class is to teach them to do critical thinking,” he said. “A lot of them come out of college not knowing how to do that. Big data is a tool, not a technology to be worshiped. The computer never gets bored, and it doesn’t make mistakes. But it doesn’t know how to ask questions–it’s about asking the right questions.”

Inspired by the success of data-driven companies like Amazon and Capital One, businesses large and small are jumping on the big data bandwagon. Companies are clamoring for savvy graduates who know how to tap into all that business intelligence sitting there in the ether—and what to do with what they get it. The problem is, there aren’t that many of them. IT folks don’t know  how to ask business questions, and b-school grads don’t know how to conduct effective searches—not that their employers would have access to the kind of high-powered computing and programs needed to do big data right.

Working on teams and using the auto industry as a test case for their searches, students are learning how to create models and dictionaries to plug into the natural language processing software, which was developed by IBM and has been beta tested at the college. The information the computers deliver would help companies like Toyota and Chrysler make better decisions about new products, new business models, customer sentiment and competitive positioning.

“ Companies that reward good data well succeed more than those that reinforce ‘feelings,’” Kowolenko said.

For students who master this process will likely be able to name their price. “They’ll have a skill set unique to them,” said Kowolenko. “People who know what this is will be in demand.”

Poole is one of the only business schools offering a course on big data. And if it’s a success, the course may be expanded or even offered as a concentration in the MBA program.

Kowolenko helped develop The Big Data Analytics Platform (BDAPTM for specific industry sponsored research projects. To date, he has partnered with dozens of Poole MBA               students as part of their practica requirement.

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