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Big Data Strategies: A Q&A with Jeff Tanner of Baylor University

Originally published November 16, 2014

This BeyeNETWORK article features Ron Powell’s interview with Jeff Tanner, professor at the Hankamer School of Business and director of Baylor’s Innovative Business Collaboratory. Jeff shares how the Collaboratory works with students, faculty and businesses to solve actual business problems.
Jeff, could you tell us about the Innovative Business Collaboratory?

Jeff Tanner: The Innovative Business Collaboratory is Baylor’s forward-facing arm that helps us match research opportunities for businesses with our faculty and students. Our goal is to solve real business problems and provide value back to the businesses so that they will be willing to participate in the scholarly agenda of our faculty which is to provide an opportunity for our students to learn. Teradata is one of our sponsors, and it’s been really great for our faculty.

I know you’re a distinguished author and you’ve written more than 15 books. Your most recent book is Analytics and Dynamic Customer Strategy: Big Profits from Big Data. Everyone is very interested in how they can drive big profits from big data. Could you give us a little insight into the book?

Jeff Tanner: It’s actually a product of some of the work that we did through the Collaboratory with Teradata’s sponsorship. About four or five years ago, I was attending a Teradata PARTNERS Conference and talking with some of the Teradata folks. We discussed why some companies get it and others don’t and what’s different about the ones that get it.

What that did was start me on a process of refining research that I had started a little before that. In the research we identified three areas that are important for organizations to make the most out of their data. Not too surprisingly, the first element is to have a data strategy, but it’s surprising to me that people are still struggling with strategy – how do they break down the data silos, how do they get the data together, are they collecting the right data and doing the right things with it.

If they’ve made that leap – if they’ve conquered that hill – then the next thing is how to make the data work. What we identified is that there is a process around conceptual mapping that really helps businesses understand why things happen. You can take the data, and you can do an analysis, and you can find that red boxes sell better than green boxes. But if you don’t understand what’s going on in the consumers’ minds, you may not really understand what’s happening. And then a competitor comes along with pink boxes, and knocks you off the cliff. The whole point around concept mapping is putting a regimen in place that allows you to make decisions based on understanding why. So it adds rigor to the decision making.

Then the third element is probably the most difficult – it’s building the right organizational culture for making the most out of data. If you think about what the consultants sell, it’s often a maturity model. They tell you where you are on the maturity model and what you need to do to move to the next level. But the problem is that you have all of these technologies and methods, and things are happening so fast that one maturity curve doesn’t really describe what’s happening. When somebody says to me, “Who is really good at this?” a lot of times I have to say that this company is really good at this part of it, this other company is good at that part of it. That’s because you have all of these innovations occurring simultaneously, and the adoption of multiple innovations can’t be really mapped out on a maturity curve. It really looks more like a migration process. So building the right culture that allows for the frontier to be settled properly is one of the biggest challenges companies are facing.

To me, it would almost seem that you have to have an innovative culture. So innovation would have to be driving the upper level. Is that what you’re seeing as well?

Jeff Tanner: Absolutely. Good for you for picking that out because that really is true. You can’t separate innovation from organizational learning. The things that drive innovation also drive organizational learning. Organizational learning is that skill set, culture and processes that enable companies to make the most out of their data. Google does experiments on how long the cafeteria lines should be in order to get conversations between people who wouldn’t know each other otherwise. They’re doing that because they want to drive innovation. That’s one of the things that makes innovation happen – getting conversation sparked between people from different areas. So if you can architect opportunities for collaboration, even in something as simple as the length of the cafeteria line, then you’re far more likely to get that innovation.

So at Google, slow service at the cafeteria is actually planned. That’s intriguing. Getting back to your latest book, why did you write it?

Jeff Tanner: I started speaking at Teradata PARTNERS events about a dozen years ago, and I would talk about marketing strategies and customer strategies. I’d have 20 people in the session and a few questions. Then about two years ago, all of a sudden, my sessions were just jammed packed and people were asking lots of questions. I was getting a lot of opportunities to speak, and I was talking about dynamic customer strategy. Enough people had solved the data problem, and then they needed to know more. So this deluge of interest caused me to realize it was time to put this in a framework in a book. And that’s what I’ve done in Analytics and Dynamic Customer Strategy: Big Profits from Big Data.

Let’s talk a little bit about your programs at Baylor. How have your programs evolved in the last few years based on all of this technology?

Jeff Tanner: That’s a great question because 13 years ago we launched the first MBA specialization in CRM, and that’s actually how I got to know Teradata. Teradata was one of the first companies to sit on the advisory board of our CRM specialization. From a pedagogical perspective, we’ve been marching right along with this move toward big data from the very early days, even before a lot of people were thinking about it. I’m a marketing guy, so I’m looking at things from the CRM type of perspective, but we’re now engaged in initiatives to drive analytics throughout the entire curriculum. I teach an undergraduate course, the first six weeks of which is dynamic customer strategy. We’re driving analytics all the way through the curriculum. Finance majors are seeing the effects of big data in risk management, fraud detection and other similar areas. And they’re seeing it as undergraduates. I think we’re a little ahead of the curve on that, but a lot of the leading business schools are moving in that direction.

One last question. How does social play into analytics and dynamic customer strategy?

Jeff Tanner: I think “in a big way” is the short answer. I wrote a paper once called the “Everywhere Nowhere Conundrum.” It’s the feeling that marketers have that customers are everywhere – they’re on this channel, that channel, so on and so forth. But when it comes time to make an offer, they’re nowhere to be found. I’m not sure we’ve solved that conundrum yet. Some get it a little better than others, but still it’s an interesting thing.

We have a major in sales that specializes in placing students in professional sports teams. There’s a guy at one of the major league baseball teams who does 90% of his sales without talking to anybody. He does it all through social – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on. He’s the team’s leading salesperson. Now, we have to capture that and replicate it. We have to figure out what he’s doing!

But that’s the big challenge in social. It looks as if customers are everywhere but when you make that offer they’re nowhere to be found.

Jeff, it’s been a pleasure talking with you and learning about how companies can make the most effective use of their data.

  • Ron PowellRon Powell
    Ron is an independent analyst, consultant and editorial expert with extensive knowledge and experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics and data warehousing. Currently president of Powell Interactive Media, which specializes in consulting and podcast services, he is also Executive Producer of The World Transformed Fast Forward series. In 2004, Ron founded the BeyeNETWORK, which was acquired by Tech Target in 2010.  Prior to the founding of the BeyeNETWORK, Ron was cofounder, publisher and editorial director of DM Review (now Information Management). He maintains an expert channel and blog on the BeyeNETWORK and may be contacted by email at rpowell@powellinteractivemedia.com. 

    More articles and Ron's blog can be found in his BeyeNETWORK expert channel.

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