Give a college student a question and you’ll get an answer. Give them an answer, and you’ll get a lot of questions. The right questions can trigger responses that represent an entirely new way to look at solutions to today’s most pressing societal and business challenges.
This is exactly what happened at the Simon Graduate School of Business where I teach business students to take an analytical approach to marketing. Instead of the usual case competition where students are asked to develop a strategy to address a specific business challenge, this time the university collaborated with IBM and regional business leaders to look at ways IBM’s Watson technology could be applied to a variety of industries.
Entering a new era of computing, Watson represents a way to pique the interest of students in areas such as analytics and cognitive computing. The Watson system has the extraordinary ability to learn and become more accurate over time.
At the Simon Graduate School of Business, we aim to familiarize students with new technologies and provide students with the chance to take a hands-on approach looking at how technology could be used in business. This required students to think critically about combining technology tools with fundamental business practices to uncover new solutions and market opportunities.
Specifically, over the course of their studies, students at the Simon School master the FACt approach (Frame, Analyze, Communicate) to handle unstructured problems: they first frame the issue in the context of economics, analyze each dimension of the problem, and then come to a decision that must be communicated throughout the organization. With the help of IBM, the case competition brought the learning experience one step further. The students were asked to look at industries that the Watson technology could be used to manage information from a variety of sources to create long-lasting value to all business stakeholders.
Marketing has always required a combination of access to data, along with the smarts to know which data to use and when. What’s different today is the massive amount of data — called Big Data — that’s flowing at incredible speeds online and through mobile devices. Consumers are making their presence known in new ways on Facebook and Twitter, and on thousands of new channels cropping up inside mobile marketplaces. For today’s students, navigating all these social media channels is part of their DNA. It’s natural for students to poll Facebook friends for a restaurant recommendation, check in on Foursquare once they get there and then post a Yelp review when they get home that night. But how can they use these channels to solve real-world business problems and create new market opportunities?
What we witnessed during the case competition was a remarkable process among students. They started with open ended questions and began to apply the Watson technology in entirely new ways. Beyond IBM’s current work applying Watson in healthcare and financial services, students researched how Watson could be used to make more accurate weather predictions and help organizations allocate resources during times of disaster and crisis, taking the aggravation out of travel by reducing wait times in airports, or make mining for natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals safer and more effective.
We had 25 students participate in the Watson case competition, each with their own ideas. All were good, and some were excellent. You can read about the three standout ideas here (link to press release). The competition has inspired students to take a more creative approach to business and societal challenges. It’s a new way of thinking, innovating, and creating new business opportunities that our future leaders must be prepared to deliver by combining business acumen and technical savvy.