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Guest Post: Data Analytics Drive Business Gains

January 11, 2019

Written by Leigh Savage and provided by Furman University Undergraduate Evening Studies

Data analytics is the process of collecting and inspecting data to find useful information, suggest conclusions and aid in decision-making.

Although businesses have been collecting and examining data for centuries, technological innovations have opened up a whole new world of data and new avenues for business optimization.

“I don’t think it’s complicated,” said Phil Corbett, a consultant who manages marketing analytics at IBM. “Analytics is fundamentally about asking questions, and with the right questions, you can get answers from your data.”

Technological advances have led to the “democratization of data,” he said, so that anyone can find loads of information related to his or her business. “It’s no longer one guy with a spreadsheet and thick glasses. Data is available at anyone’s fingertips.”

To help Upstate companies tap into this data potential, Furman University Undergraduate Evening Studies offers a Data Analytics Certificate program aimed at equipping professionals who have completed bachelor’s degrees with data insights.

“With so much data now a few clicks away, it can be difficult to construct meaning,” said Beth Crews, director of Furman University Undergraduate Evening Studies. “The certificate is for those who want to add value –  both to their companies and to themselves as employees – as those who can ask the right questions, design appropriate methods for extracting answers, and drive more informed decision making. Upstate companies value employees with that skill set.”

The Business Case for Data Analytics

Using software and specialized analytics systems, companies can find untapped markets, improve marketing messages, increase efficiency and customer satisfaction. Transaction data is just one piece of the puzzle, with businesses now able to use online sources such as clickstream data, social media posts, phone records, web servers and even data captured by household items like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

“That’s the internet of things,” Corbett said, referring to devices and machines that can transfer data without human participation. “All sorts of data comes in, so the issue becomes, how do we manage it, organize it and get something out of it?”

One reason data analytics is such an important topic is that it can be applied to all aspects of business, from marketing and human resources to finance and supply chain.

Jeff Diaz, CIO at SJWD Water District in Spartanburg and an adjunct professor in Furman Undergraduate Evening Studies (UES), said his approach is taking “what seems to be loosely correlating information and turning that into knowledge that we can take action on. It’s taking data and using it to make decisions that drive the business forward.”

As a utility company, one of the largest costs at SJWD is pumping large volumes of water across vast spaces. Keeping the company’s power bill as low as possible leads to lower rates for customers, Diaz said. “The actual pumps collect data—the temperature of the motor, voltage irregularities,” he said. Information allows staff members to make decisions about how best to distribute water as well as when to maintain or replace equipment.

SJWD uses an algorithm designed by the U.S. Department of Energy to analyze data inputs. In addition to keeping power consumption and related costs down, the system also cuts capital expenditures, as pumps can cost more than $500,000. “It helps get that ROI,” he said.

Maximizing Data

With so much data coming in so many forms, including video, social media, and websites, the challenging part is hiring people who can process and analyze that data, Corbett said. Understanding a programming language such as Python helps people extract the data, and further training allows people to understand the data once it is extracted.

Data has a maturity curve, which starts with simple descriptive data. “These are spreadsheets or data visualizing,” he said. “Visualizing data is the key enabler for anyone who wants to analyze data.”

Once the data has described a situation, it can then become diagnostic. If descriptive data shows that sales were down in May, diagnostic looks into why sales were down in May. The more advanced stage, according to Corbett, is predictive, when multiple data sources can be used to predict certain outcomes, and then prescriptive takes the information a step further, showing what businesses can do to optimize profits.

Diaz has witnessed data analysis evolve from a more theoretical approach, when most businesses didn’t have the processing power or storage capacity to successfully gather and analyze large sets of data, to a more practical tool for businesses today. Even the smallest businesses can benefit to some degree.

For example, a small restaurant may use data to find out the best times to order food and beverages to maximize savings but prevent spoilage. “They could find out how weather affects sales and what people choose to eat. That helps you plan your orders and stock your pantry,” Diaz said.

George Manteghi, who completed his business degree at Furman UES in 2008, said he focuses on supply chain as a senior buyer at Lonza, a global pharmaceutical company with operations in Greenwood County. After gathering data, “we use the numbers to paint a picture of what we are trying to accomplish with our supply chain, such as on-time delivery. We can play with the numbers.”

Recent advances have allowed companies to do “a whole lot more with less,” Manteghi said. He uses SAP software, employing an algorithm that shows when purchases must be made to prevent stock shortages. “We’re dealing with data that manages millions of dollars’ worth of inventory, so we don’t want to buy too much or too little,” he said.

While the technology is helpful, Manteghi said it is pivotal for companies to have employees who can decipher what the numbers are saying. He sees companies striving to become more nimble, accomplishing in a week what used to take a month. Companies “need robust systems to look at the data, finding shortcuts to make decisions, because time is money.”

Diaz added that data analytics is the future of operations management, as “everyone is being asked to do more with less. It’s about using business and management acumen to define vision and then using these analytic platforms to deliver.”

“The fundamental common denominator is critical thinking and common sense,” Corbett said. “If you ask the right questions, the data will be there.”

Find Out More on Furman’s Data Analytics Certificate

For additional information on Furman University’s Undergraduate Evening Studies (UES) programs, including the Data Analytics Certificate, click here. Upstate SC Alliance investors at the Director’s Circle level and above are eligible to receive a 10% discount on tuition for UES degree programs, which can applied by individual learners employed with investor companies.

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Photographs provided by Furman University.

TOPICS: Business, Colleges & Universities, Education, Guest Posts, Technology