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Alumni flock to data-driven event

Sara Bittorf speaking

The term "data analytics" may seem numerical and cold on its surface, but it can take many very human forms in business: A boss going on a reality TV show to find out what her employees really think of corporate. A sports team figuring out how much its fans are willing to pay for primo tickets. FedEx deciding to deliver on Mother's Day so moms can receive flowers, but not on most Sundays.

About 250 alumni and other guests gathered at the Muma College of Business on Oct. 25 to learn more about data-driven decisions -- from the lessons Boston Market's Chief Brand Officer took back from her experience on the "Undercover Boss" TV show, to a panel discussion with top-level executives on how they use data in their jobs.

Data drives everything we do in the business world," said Moez Limayem, dean of the USF Muma College of Business. "We wanted to host a discussion 'big data' with industry leaders because we know how crucial it is to embrace and mine data in order to convert it to information and knowledge useful for business decisions. This is a prevailing trend and future businesses – as well as the people who run them – must be able to understand what the data is saying."

When Sara Bittorf, the event's keynote speaker, went on "Undercover Boss," the Boston Market chief brand officer said the constant lying got to her. A fan of the "authentic leadership" style of management, Bittorf said she hated looking into the faces of her employees and telling them that she was a diner waitress named Rachel. It went against everything she believed in as a boss, she said.

"I think authentic leadership should just be called 'leadership,' and everything else should be called 'inauthentic leadership,'" she said.

Bittorf, the first boss to ever fire anyone on the show, said some aspects of the experience were not pleasant -- such as firing Ronnie, a Duluth, Ga., employee who told her how much he hated Boston Market's customers. But, she gained valuable insight into how employees perceived their roles in the organization as well as corporate leadership.

When Ronnie said he did things simply "because corporate tells us to," or another employee told her they weren't supposed to take breaks during the day, Bittorf realized the reasons behind corporate decisions were not necessarily trickling down to employees. She heard that employees did not feel they were being listened to when they brought problems to higher ups.

"In my time undercover, I heard this refrain several times: 'we've told somebody about it, but nothing has changed,'" Bittorf said.

As a result of the show, the company formalized their "chat tour," where Boston Market executives travel to regional stores to talk with managers about what is and isn't working.

Panel discussion

After Bittorf's talk, ISDS Chair Balaji Padmanabhan led a panel discussion on making data-driven decisions. Participating in the panel were FedEx Co-Chief Executive and Chief Information Officer Rob Carter, Avon Chief Financial Officer Kimberly Ross, and Florida Panthers Director of Business Operations Andre Therrien. Both Carter and Ross are USF Muma College of Business alumni, and Therrien studied under Sport & Entertainment Management Director Bill Sutton when he taught at UCF.

The panelists, along with Padmanabhan, who is a USF expert in data mining and analytics, discussed the expanding uses for data in the corporate world and the importance of shifting to a corporate culture with an analytics mindset.

Therrien said in his work with the Florida Panthers hockey club, the road to an analytics mindset has not been a straight line. Recently, the team tried to recreate the exclusive club the Miami Heat have at their games, with stratospheric ticket prices for an all-inclusive experience. Therrien looked at the numbers and told his managers that such a club would not make the money they wanted with what people were actually willing to pay for tickets. The club renovation went ahead despite his warnings, and ended up with the numbers being what he had projected.

"I think changing to the analytics culture improves everybody," Therrien said, adding that now, another club renovation is being overseen by him and his department.

The panelists also emphasized that, counterintuitively, the human element remains necessary when making data-based decisions.

"We have to understand that human intuition is really important," Carter said.

Ross said companies often think about analytics "or" intuition, which is the wrong mindset.
"It's not an 'or,' it's an 'and,'" Ross said.

Carter said companies who worry about the implications of technology rather than embracing its potential will get left behind in the new marketplace.

"We need to embrace the fact that the digital world can tell us a lot about what's going on around us," he said.

"My team's owner always says, 'be a step ahead of me,'" Therrien said.