What This Professor Wants You to Know About Big Data

August 1, 2017
Jeremy Petranka Talking With a Student

Back in the late ‘90s, PriceWaterhouseCoopers asked Jeremy Petranka to look into what was just starting to be called big data.

“Data analytics hadn’t quite boomed yet,” he said. “The cloud was just beginning to form.”

Twenty years later, the cloud is everywhere but companies have been slower to grasp how big data can transform their organizations. As assistant dean for the Master of Quantitative Management: Business Analytics program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Petranka is hoping to help change that.

“There’s still a divide between the wranglers of data and the users of data,” he said. “It still feels like people are viewing analytics as an add-on tool and not as a potentially central tool to help run an organization.”

Petranka sees himself as the poster child for the kind of students Fuqua wants for the Business Analytics program, which trains students in data analytics and communication for business.

“They’re my people,” he said of the prospective students. “I have a natural affinity for STEM kids who love the tools they’ve developed, but not the questions they’ve had to answer -- the students who care more about how Boeing can improve its business strategy than how Boeing builds airplanes.”

For an economist with a background in strategy, Petranka’s career path to academia took a meandering route. He started out studying engineering “because that’s what everyone in my family did, and I was good at science and math.”

But he quickly figured out he didn’t want to be an engineer. After college he “fell into” consulting, as firms were snapping up graduates from various backgrounds as a way of helping clients leverage IT to support their business strategies during the ‘90s tech boom.

After five years of consulting, Petranka went back to school to get his Ph.D in economics. He had minored in it for undergrad and remembered those were the classes he found really interesting. Plus he had always wanted to teach.

Now, he puts his strategy background to use in the classroom.

 “If my goal is to get your brain to change in a certain way and I have a certain number of weeks to do it, I have to make sure the structure is in place, that everything is building on top of everything else to achieve an exact goal,” he said. “That’s exactly what strategy execution entails.”

“Strategy involves determining where you want your company to go, making sure your organization is aligned to get there, and setting goals that keep you heading in that direction."

Strategy can be a slippery concept, even for some of the executives Petranka has taught. Often they mistake tactics – the use of big data or cloud computing – for strategy.

“Strategy involves determining where you want your company to go, making sure your organization is aligned to get there, and setting goals that keep you heading in that direction,” he said. “If you ask companies how they measure whatever success is to them, many can’t tell you. If you want 150 percent revenue growth in five years, but you can’t figure out where you need to be in one, two or three years to get there, then you’re going to be disappointed in five years. Data can help you make sure the things you’re doing actually work.”

In many ways, Petranka said, strategy is the area with the most potential for using data in truly transformational ways. While human resources, for example, has long been a strongly qualitative field, data can now be used to determine whether employees have the tools necessary to deliver.

“For instance, we can determine if training programs are actually effective, whether certain types of employees respond to them more strongly, and whether we’re seeing the day-to-day changes we need,” Petranka said. “Whether it’s in operations, human resources, or market analysis, we’re seeing a huge potential for incorporating analytics in a way that helps organizations develop and align their strategy in ways that have never been done before.”

“What you’re measured on is what you do."

Big data can also be used to build culture at a firm, Petranka said.

“What you’re measured on is what you do,” he said. “You can get an idea of whether racism or sexism are a problem at your firm, and whether you’re getting a culture in your company that is inclusive. You can find out what interventions have an effect and make people better in the ways that you want. Most of these things are measurable.”

More data alone, however, is not necessarily better.

“What you want is for the data analysis to be driven by someone in the business who truly knows what data can do, and who knows what question they are trying to answer,” Petranka said. “People who know when they need a data scientist to develop the architecture to run something, but people who also know what to do with the results.”

Bridging that gap is part of what Petranka hopes the new program at Fuqua will address.

 “We need to quantify our decisions," he said. "We can’t just be operating on guts.”