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IBM, Yale partner up to turn social media into a teaching tool

Yale and IBM are teaming up to bring social media data -- and text analytics -- into the classroom via real-world business scenarios.

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a three-part series on how business intelligence is impacting higher education institutions. Read the first installment on predictive analytics and financial aid. Read the second installment on BI and enrollment management.

Business intelligence (BI) is more than just a part of the college and university administrative toolbox. Today, students are learning about BI in the classroom through undergraduate programs specializing in business intelligence and analytics, BI and data management certificates and BI programs that require mobile platforms to join in on the coursework.

But institutions of higher education aren’t simply training students on BI methodology or the latest BI trends; many are also establishing relationships with vendors to create opportunities for students to gain real-world exposure. In April, the Yale Center for Customer Insights and IBM announced a partnership that will connect students to real-world business projects specifically focused on social media and text analytics.

“Most companies we talk to have mountains of data they don’t know what to do with,” said K. Sudhir, the James L. Frank ’32 Professor of Private Enterprise and Management at Yale University.

In fact, according to Deepak Advani, vice president of predictive analytics for IBM, digital data has increased tenfold in the last five years through Twitter and other social outlets.

“There’s almost too much data, yet when we talk to companies, they don’t have enough analytics and insights from this data to make decisions,” Advani said. “That’s where we see enormous opportunity. If we can help analyze all the data that’s being generated, it could be like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., predicts that number will continue to climb exponentially in the next 10 years, triggering a demand for a workforce skilled in managing and gaining insight from data analysis.

A BI partnership is born
Yale began exploring how to incorporate unstructured data mining into the classroom last fall with six students and two projects: The first focused on analyzing language around the recent Toyota recall; the second featured TurboTax, an online tax preparation application that also supports a “Live Community,” or help center, allowing customers to pose questions that can be answered by both experts and other users directly.

“We gained insight into what Intuit [the company that developed TurboTax] can do in real time to help customers with tax and software questions they had,” Sudhir said. “At the same time, we also talked about ways in which the website was structured. So we had recommendations about reorganization.”

While IBM and Yale have partnered on projects for the last three or four years -- some focused on faculty and others focused on students -- this new association, which involves collaborating on creating a project-focused course called “Customer Insights,” means having access to analytics tools not widely available in the marketplace, according to Sudhir. That cadre of tools will include Cognos Consumer Insight, IBM’s new social media analytics software, unveiled in conjunction with the announcement of the academic initiative.

“There’s so much unstructured data out there in social media,” Advani said. “This product enables you to collect all that information using scalable algorithms. It lets you understand what the social conversations are about: What is the sentiment; what are people talking about; is the campaign getting through; is it becoming a part of the conversation or not.”

In addition, IBM will also provide access to real-world scenarios enabling students to help businesses manage and analyze streams of data coming gathered from online comments and social media sources.

A real-world trend
The push Yale and IBM is making to put analytics tools into the hands of business students echoes a trend that’s currently being seen in the business world as well. Advani noted that analytics has been around for years, and the popularity for faster, more consumable tools continues to grow. Those BI tools are moving beyond the IT domain into the hands of managers and executives.

“When you have a business student graduating from business school, they need to have a good grasp of analytics and how they can leverage those analytics,” Advani said.

Sudhir said he’s already hearing from students interested in taking part in the project, but he recognizes that data doesn’t get all of his students out of bed in the morning.

“At the end of the day, not everyone is going to be excited by data and BI,” he said.

Even so, Sudhir said that both he and the university recognize the skills real-world instruction can provide in the marketplace, giving graduates from the Yale School of Management a potential leg up when joining the real world themselves.

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