The stream of shapeless information dubbed “big data” in recent years has swelled to a full-blown waterfall– and for any company looking to maintain competitive edge, it’s drink or drown.
The Center for Operational Excellence at its April Leading Through Excellence summit tackled the issue of big data and analytics through the lens of operations management with a panel discussion that illuminated both the opportunities in wrestling with fast-moving torrents of information and the challenges many organizations still face.
From the discussion, moderated by Ralph Greco, director of the Business Analytics Initiative at Fisher College of Business, here are some key insights from Anson Asoka, VP of global insights and analytics at Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.; Andy Keller, VP of analytics and global process owner at Cardinal Health Inc.; and Dihan Rosenburg, director of product planning at LexisNexis:
1. There’s much more room in the big-data sandbox
High-profile victors at making the most of this ever-growing flood of social media, mobile, customer activity, and market information include titans such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The panelists, however, were a great example of how savvy companies are making the most of information to improve the supply chain, increase customer value, and make better decisions.
Scotts’ Asoka said it’s “an inherent part of our culture to capture information … and be able to leverage it.” That extends to constantly tracking a wide range of customer information before, during, and after product launches and feeding that back to the organization.
“We make products based on customer needs,” Asoka said of the $2.8 billion-a-year lawn and garden giant. “We don’t make products and then go find consumers.”
Cardinal, the $100 billion-a-year pharmaceutical and medical product distributor, is investing in keeping eyes trained on data tied to seasonally fluctuating illnesses, from the flu to allergies, and supply chain disruptions, such as product recalls, Keller said. That includes staying up-to-date on Google Flu Trends, a highly visible – but somewhat controversial – example of data analytics that Keller said is “surprisingly accurate.”
2. Data aren’t the meal – they’re the raw ingredients.
Panelists repeatedly stressed the fact that regardless of how much data a company is able to collect, it’s the sorting and analysis that ultimately create true value.
“Any one data point isn’t going to tell you the answer,” said Cardinal’s Keller. “It’s how we pull it all together, and use the tools and knowledge to pull (the value) out.”
One such tool was developed by Rosenburg at LexisNexis, the online information powerhouse commonly known for its exhaustive stash of archived news and public records.
SmartWatch, launched in 2012, allows customers to monitor supply chain risk through a range of market intelligence that’s color-coded and categorized by its political, economic, societal, technical, legal and environmental factors. The goal, Rosenburg said, is to get customers “ahead of the curve” – noticing, for example, that labor unrest is occurring in a factory’s home country before a full-blown strike occurs.
“When information becomes plentiful and free, the information about information is where the real gold is,” Rosenburg said.
Scotts’ Asoka said the root of the company’s approach to big data and analytics is simply a constant thirst for more.
“We need a lot (of data), and we don’t turn any down,” he said.
3. Infrastructure is important – very important.
Despite its status as a relatively new challenge for companies, the management of the data analytics function isn’t immune to some classic hurdles: Silos, project burn-out, and lack of infrastructure.
Keller of Cardinal said the company has taken a similar approach to the development of its analytics capabilities as its highly successful lean/Six Sigma deployment. In less than a decade, Cardinal’s operational excellence rollout has gone from a supply chain efficiency effort to a catalyst for enterprise-wide culture change.
“As I describe our (analytics) journey, it’s similar to our operational excellence journey,” Keller said. “It’s all about developing a structure, setting up career paths, and getting rigor around establishing a common language.”
This broad-based effort to align people and processes, though, can’t exist on an island, said Asoka of Scotts.
“Infrastructure is important,” he said. “I’ve seen over time that what really benefits an organization is to have analytics people within functions – and if you can have a horizontal cut across all those verticals you can properly manage data, tools and people.”
Most crucially is how data analytics ultimately fits into a company’s broader strategic course, said Rosenburg of LexisNexis.
“Quality requires vigilance,” she said. “It’s not a project you do and forget about.”
4. People are key – and we need many, many more of them.
In the end, panelists said, making better decisions through data analytics doesn’t come down to having the best software program or the biggest data center. It comes down to having people with the skills to sort, scour and shape the information into something valuable.
“If you don’t have the right people to really accelerate (your efforts), you’re going to continue to struggle, spending a lot of time as an organization getting alignment,” said Keller of Cardinal.
So who are these “data scientists?” Asoka of Scotts said there’s no rigid set of skills that can flag a slam-dunk analytics hire – rather, it’s an employee’s relentless sense of curiosity, paired with proven experience in problem-solving, that’s key.
Efforts to develop these data scientists of tomorrow are under way all around the country, but Fisher and The Ohio State University are taking an especially aggressive approach. The university just this year unveiled an undergraduate major in data analytics set to be offered this fall.
At Fisher, Greco said, the college for years has been providing its students with the skills needed to work in analytics, but efforts are afoot to develop an undergraduate business analytics minor and a graduate major for full-time MBA students.
“Students with an outstanding business acumen and skills in logistics, supply chain, HR, finance and other areas combined with analytics will be the managers of the future,” Greco said.
This article appears in the April 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.