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  • Case Studies, or Data Science, or Both
  • Since the virus crisis, more business activities have moved online. This can reinforce the notion that every company must now be a technology company. With technology’s rise, many companies are striving to be more data driven and making greater use of Big Data and AI (artificial intelligence). In light of this, there may be tendencies to perceive sophisticated data science as a better source of business knowledge than more traditional approaches to learning about what works.

    For example, in the Wall Street Journal article “Carnegie Mellon’s New Business Dean Is Upbeat“ by Patrick Thomas, on July 14, 2020, Isabelle Bajeux Besnainou, Dean of the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business indicates that her school is putting emphasis on approaches like data analytics. She explains that there is a very good reason for this. She says, “In the present situation, especially with the Covid crisis, it’s never happened before, so it’s very difficult to use past business cases to make decisions right now.” She adds, “It’s a business school that is very well embedded in a university that is extremely strong in science, technology, and engineering.”

    The Dean is so right that the Covid pandemic is like nothing we have ever experienced. So, as she points out, there is no case study that clearly illustrates how to handle the current crisis. But, although this is true, it doesn’t mean that the case study approach should be completely abandoned, according to my experience. Just because no case study focuses entirely upon the unprecedented situation that Covid brings, value can still come from taking pieces of case studies and looking at if and how something there might be applicable today.

    This won’t solve all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic. But, it can help with some of the issues companies are facing during this unprecedented time. For example, businesses will have to make strategic choices regarding if and how to move into new areas as pandemic related shutdown and consumer fear may severely cripple their existing enterprise. Although there is no case study for a worldwide pandemic shutdown, business case studies can illustrate the value of strategies that build upon a company’s strengths. And, as I explained in an earlier newsletter, Covid shutdown mandates may force companies to do some things that do not fit with their strengths. Yet, businesses should try to build on their strengths if the situation does allow it during these difficult times.

    On the other hand, in keeping with the approach Dean Besnainou’s school offers, data analytics plays an increasingly important role in business. But, as I see it, companies can benefit most if they can combine the knowledge that comes via data with the business dynamics illustrated in case studies. I say this as someone who, early in my career, did predictive analytics while holding a position as that era’s version of what today is called a data scientist, and whose subsequent research into business success and failure patterns reflects the kind of business dynamics illustrated in case studies.

    Furthermore, additional situations reinforce the value of combining the use of data with the more qualitative insights that can come from case studies, as well as from other sources that go beyond the algorithms. For example, some time ago, when Amazon held a competition to develop AI (artificial intelligence) to improve its Alexa product, a top rated AI group did not make it into the five finalists. The reason: although this group was top rated on the technical side, its results were not as good as what came from the five groups that became finalists. Those five combined their computerized algorithms with human judgement. In contrast, the top rated group that did not become a finalist relied on its algorithms alone. This situation illustrates the value of going beyond analytics and algorithms and including an understanding of the issues, which can come from case studies or from other human experience based judgement.

    So, in conclusion, there is value in gaining knowledge both from case studies and via data analytics. Although no case study completely focuses on the unprecedented situation brought on by the pandemic, pieces of existing case studies may have some applicability today. These case studies don’t have all the answers for dealing with the Covid pandemic, but they can still shed some insights.

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