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Beth Comstock: Learning To Ride The Data Wave

GE's chief marketing officer says there are things to love about data even if you're from a non-technical background.

Beth Comstock, General Electric
Beth Comstock, General Electric on December 27, 2013.

Data Science for Business Leaders

If you don’t like data, you’re not going to like the future. That’s because there’s a giant digital wave that’s overtaking us, with information flooding in all around. We can channel this information to improve decision-making and help businesses become more efficient, but only if we have a working knowledge of data science.

Zero Unplanned Downtime

Data science. It’s a term that sends chills down the spine of even the most capable executives, particularly ones who, like me, come from non-technical backgrounds. So it’s helpful to think about why data will be so useful to us. Most big businesses have already wrung efficiencies from process-driven, just-in-time models. The advantage of data is that it tells us what we don’t know – it can help us pluck trends out of the seeming chaos of customer behavior or tell us how equipment is performing in real time. It helps us find ways to keep machines humming and strive for the new nirvana – “zero unplanned downtime”. Zero unplanned downtime basically means things work when they are supposed to. Machines alert us before a problem arises so we can act accordingly – presumably so we can have more time working toward market growth and having people like our products even more than we imagined.

Finding the Signal

But that data is going to be useful only if we know how to tease out the signal. As Kellogg School of Management professor Florian Zettlemeyer told us at GE’s Minds and Machines conference, the Industrial Internet is going to challenge managers because they’ll need to understand analytics, know what questions to ask and be able to link cause and effect. Data is to us what accounting was to a previous generation of business leaders. “Analytics is becoming the new balance sheet in terms of what we need to know,” he said.

Can’t we just hire data scientists to take care of data science? Yes, we can and will. But for leaders, the key is going to be setting strategic goals. A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly pointed out that any move to integrate data into a business will falter without well-defined priorities and benchmarks. Support from the C-Suite and a commitment to train mid-level managers who can think through challenges using data are critical to setting a winning strategy.

Data scientist Jeremy Howard, formerly of Kaggle, believes his profession can solve new problems not only through machine learning tools but also with creativity, open-mindedness and tenacity. But first, he notes, “It starts with knowing the objective you’re trying to solve and what are the constraints.”

Don’t Get Washed Away

I confess, I’ve only learned to love data over time. Now, I function as a much better marketer with analytics, visualizations and models that help bring to life connections that before weren’t obvious. With the emergence of the Industrial Internet, as some 50 billion machines come online, a flood of information is about to touch every aspect of business. But it also requires understanding what questions to ask. My advice to business leaders is this: try to get comfortable with data, but you must learn what questions to ask or risk getting washed away.

Beth Comstock is chief marketing officer at General Electric

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