Growing up in China, Bin Zhu had little exposure to baseball. But since becoming a researcher and teacher in the field of business information systems, the College of Business assistant professor has developed a fondness for at least one aspect of America’s national pastime: “Moneyball.”
The 2003 book by Michael Lewis, which eight years later became a movie starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the datadriven general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics, provides an example of business analytics that Zhu’s students at Oregon State can easily grasp and get excited about.
“I use ‘Moneyball’ as a sales pitch to my undergraduate students, the analytic component of baseball,” she said.
In his industry, Beane spawned a statistical-analysis revolution by basing player personnel decisions on advanced data; with a smaller budget than most of his competitors, Beane couldn’t afford to acquire established stars, so his aim was to scoop up unheralded players whom the market had undervalued.
The subsequent book and film show what business analytics – also known as big data, as well as data mining and business intelligence – is all about: An organization captures and stores vast amounts of information and processes it in such a way that managers can optimize resources in pursuit of an objective – in Beane’s case, winning ballgames.
“In the sports industries, it’s somewhat easier than in some other industries because the information domain is smaller,” Zhu said.
Much like Beane, the College of Business understands the value of analytics and in Fall 2014 began offering a new Business Analytics track in the MBA program.
Zhu knows firsthand that the sky literally is the limit for how large those domains can be, having worked with global climate change data collected from NASA satellites while pursuing her Ph.D. in management information systems from the University of Arizona.
A former weather forecaster in China – her undergraduate degree, from Beijing University, is in meteorology, and her master’s, from Arizona, is in atmospheric science – Zhu performed the analytics on that “huge domain of information” in a collaboration between the university’s Department of Atmospheric Science and Eller College of Management.
In a digital-oriented world in which almost every activity leaves some sort of data behind – it’s estimated the world’s per-capita data storage capability has doubled every 40 months over the last 30 years – organizations of all types have the opportunity and challenge of leveraging all of that information.
That’s where researchers like Zhu and her peers at the College of Business, particularly the Business Analytics track in its MBA program, come in – to prepare business leaders not to be overwhelmed by data, but to capitalize on it.
Two of Zhu’s recent research projects illustrate how that might work. One is a study of a handful of Fortune 500 companies’ Twitter results that uses an application program interface to determine the types of people most likely to retweet or forward the businesses’ messages. In the era before big data, the firms would need a survey – a comparatively slow and expensive undertaking – to learn what Zhu’s analytics revealed about the retweeters and forwarders:
• That they enjoy being the information source for their friends;
• That they see passing along that information as a means of staying connected with their friends;
• That they identify strongly with the product in question.
“The best decision making is a mix of analytics and instinct,” said Zhu, who teaches both undergraduate and graduate students at Oregon State. “There’s always the human factor. You’re looking at indicators. You have to understand the domain to understand the contextual variables. That’s where instinct comes in.”
The Business Analytics MBA track, which currently has 12 students in it and three who will graduate this spring, is expected to be offered beginning fall 2015 via online/hybrid delivery to the Portland market, aims to get students ready to meet a growing workplace demand. Organizations of all types, nonprofit and for-profit enterprises alike, are looking for the kind of improvement in decision making afforded by the power of advances in software interoperability, data exchange mechanisms and visualization techniques.
Thus the track is aimed at three types of professionals:
• Managers who want to expand their organizations’ use of business analytics.
• Information systems professionals responsible for using available organizational data for analytic processes.
• Analysts whose work supports decision making, strategy formation and operational improvement.
Graduates can expect to look for work in a brisk job market. The McKinsey Global Institute has reported, for example, that the U.S. economy has shortages of roughly 165,000 business analytics professionals and 1.5 million managers with the skill set to implement the results of data analysis; Oregon State’s MBA program addresses both of those areas.
The ability to glean insights from large data sets is needed along the full spectrum of industries, functions and geographies; a better understanding of the consumer through business analytics drives a variety of factors including profitability, innovation and customer service. And the day has only just dawned for big data – Markets and Markets, a global research organization, predicts it will own a $46 billion portion of the world economy by 2018.