Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

In graduate schools these days, marketing isn’t for dilettantes.

Want proof? Two teams made up entirely of masters-of-marketing candidates placed first and second in last week’s Watson competition at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business. They beat five teams made up of traditional MBA candidates.

Their apparent edge: Simon School’s marketing program concentrates on quantitative analysis—the art of turning data into valuable insights. “We didn’t have a lot of background information, so we had to find a lot of data,” says Christian Beck, a 25-year-old from Hannover, Germany, who was on the winning team. “This reinforces my belief in the power of data.”

The seven teams spent two weeks preparing for the competition. Their task was to choose applications within specific industries that they believe will be fertile ground for IBM’s Watson, which last year defeated two former grand-champions at the TV quiz show Jeopardy! After that, they presented their proposals before a panel of judges including Simon School faculty members, a Rochester-area business CEO and two IBM executives. It was the first of a series of such competitions, which are aimed at getting top business students excited about the potential for data analytics.

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The winners in the Simon School's Watson competition

In the past, in many business schools, marketing didn’t get the same level of respect as some other fields, such as finance. But the wind is shifting. That’s because, increasingly, marketing executives are in a position to dramatically impact the success of their companies.

These days, the combination of social networking and powerful new data analytics tools makes it possible for companies to know their customers and potential customers better than ever before. Increasingly, they can target customers with offers of products and services that will appeal to them via the marketing channels they’re most comfortable with. Thanks to data analytics and social networking, we’re approaching the point where we can market to individuals rather than segments.

This is nothing less than a revolution in the way marketing is done.

Students on the two top teams in Rochester get this, and they’re excited about their career prospects. Shan Huang, a 23-year old from southern China, says, “Any kind of market decision we make in the future will be a process of combining qualitative thinking and quantitative information. If we have the right data, we’ll be able to come up with good solutions.”

Huang’s team, made up of our Chinese women, initially targeted retailing and tourism, two industries they knew something about. But then they realized they needed to start not with what they knew but with Watson’s capabilities—and then map them to an industry where they would be extremely valuable. In the end, they chose mining. They developed a scenario for managers at mines or oil drilling rigs using Watson to determine where and how to search for minerals or oil and also to help them respond quickly to changes as they occur.

Beck’s team, which included people from Pakistan, Spain and the United States, focused on developing a crisis-management application.

The competition got the students thinking about all sorts of ways that Watson could be used in the future, some serious, an some not. “We joked that in a few years, every individual will have access to Watson. When Christmas is coming, you can ask Watson for gift-giving advice,” Beck says.

That may seem silly now, but the fact is that at some point individuals will have  Watson-like intelligence at their fingertips. For now, though, the Watson development team, and the students participating in the Watson competition series, are focusing on new capabilities that can help transform industries.

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