Date published: March 23, 2016
"Big data" is a term that occurs regularly in discussions of corporate strategy and
analytics, but what is it? "I hate the term 'big data,'" said Tom Nealon, MBA '87,
Executive Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at Southwest Airlines. "You have
to get clarity around what those words really mean if you want to develop a successful
organizational structure that can take advantage of the information you're generating."
Nealand spoke recently as part of the University of Dallas' TIE expert panel series.
The panel discussion, entitled "Executive Decision Making: Analyzing Big Data," drew
a large crowd at the University of Dallas' Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business,
due in no small part to the credentials of the panel, which also included Aaron Miri,
MBA '10, chief information officer of Walnut Medical Center; Ellen Barker, MBA '94,
vice president and chief information officer, Texas Instruments; and Rhonda Levene,
MBA '89, former chief operating officer and chief financial officer, Daymon Worldwide.
Mark Ryland, chief architect, Worldwide Public Sector Team, Amazon Web Services, moderated
The Rise of Data Collection
Ryland attributed the tremendous growth in the sheer amount of data available to analyze
to a few megatrends that have emerged within the tech industry. "First, storage is
basically free," he said. "There's never any real reason for a company to delete the
data they have collected on their customers. Second, the growth of new tools to analyze
data has made it possible to handle a lot of information cheaply. And third, these
days, just about everything is instrumental and is throwing off data. This means we
are accumulating unprecedented amounts of information."
But how, exactly, could and should a company use these mountains of data to make decisions?
Barker explained that three things about big data make the management of it especially
complicated. "Because of the internet of things, we are receiving data from an amazing
variety of sources," she said. "The velocity of data has also increased. And data
has volatility. Some data is more valuable in the stream and less valuable as time
progresses. Because of all these factors, we have to ask, 'How do we architect our
environment to give our business units the data they need?'"
The Impact of Data Mining
Levene said her previous experience with Coca-Cola Co. and Daymon Worldwide helped
her see big data from a consumer, brand-building perspective. "Big data becomes really
effective for retailers when it creates consumer pull demand versus retailer pushing
demand," she said. "If handled correctly, it helps retailers correlate their next
For Miri, careful data analysis can have even greater implications. "In healthcare,
data analytics is about saving lives," he said. "If I can analyze how long it takes
a patient to get from the ambulance into triage and then shave minutes off of that
time, I can have a great impact on patient care." Miri said even social media platforms
can have an impact on hospitals. "We look at every bit of data. For example, we might
look at Twitter for news of how the flu is spreading in the DFW area. That helps us
prepare for what might be coming," he said.
The panel also addressed questions from the audience about the ethics of collecting
large amounts of data and then correlating it in a way that could threaten an individual's
privacy. The panelists agreed that even so-called anonymous data can be "de-anonymized"
if subjected to a fine-grain analysis. Miri explained that the sequencing of the human
genome is an example of how detailed healthcare data can both help and harm a potential
patient. "If your genome shows you are at risk for cancer, a health insurance company
cannot deny you coverage because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act," he said.
"But life insurers are not part of those regulations. They can deny coverage based
on your genomic risk of getting cancer." While this may seem troubling to a healthcare
consumer, Miri added that these ethical situations should not preclude data analysis
within the healthcare industry. "We must use the data to push society to get better.
That's the purpose of technology in healthcare. The question is: will people be willing
to give up some privacy in order to achieve the endgame of a healthier society?"
The Future and Current State of Data Analysis
Several members of the audience were also interested in how the panelists view the
future of data analytics in their roles as employers. One person asked how he could
remain relevant as an employee in an industry that changes every day. Nealon emphasized
that to be successful, data analysts must emphasize their business skills. "Your business
skills, coupled with strong applied mathematics skills, will make you an asset to
an employer," he said. "You must bring up your business intellect. You want to be
known as a business person with tech DNA."
All panelists agreed that the collection, analysis and protection of data is now an
integral part of corporate responsibility and should be viewed as an executive management
issue. "Proper data governance is a priority for businesses," Ryland said. "And these
emerging questions about how to use the data have become ethical questions as well."
About the TIE Series
TIE stands for Transformation, Innovation and Ethics. It is an expert panel series
in which alumni leaders host a discussion on transitions and the future of business.
The purpose of TIE is to bring together alumni, administration, students and faculty
to discuss a rapidly transitioning world and how to innovate and manage that change
in an ethical manner.
Find out more by visiting alumni.udallas.edu/tie.