No Hosannas: IS Professor Tamps Down the Hype on Big Data
by tim gray
McKiernan Family Faculty Fellow Sam Ransbotham forgives you for thinking of him as the Carroll School’s Forrest Gump. He’s certainly not the athlete Forrest was—he says his soccer career ended in high school. But like Forrest, he’s a southerner—a Georgian—who seems to pop up everywhere.
As you’d expect with a business school professor, you can find Ransbotham in the classrooms in Fulton Hall and in the pages of the professional journals in his field—information systems. You can also run across him writing about IT for practitioners and interested laypeople as a blogger for the MIT Sloan Management Review. On top of that, he has been instrumental in helping to redesign the Carroll School’s M.B.A. curriculum, bringing a greater focus on data analytics.
With the changes to the M.B.A. program, Ransbotham said, the school is trying to equip all its M.B.A.s with the skills to thrive in a data-deluged era. “Today, everybody in business needs to know data and analytics,” he said. “So we’ve put in place a four-course sequence—Pieter Vanderwerf teaches methodology, Rob Fichman teaches analytics strategy, George Wyner teaches structuring and querying data, and I teach analytics tools—to help our students build the data skills they need.
“It’s easy for people to get bamboozled by a bunch of statistics words. We want our students to be able to say, ‘I’m not so sure about that.’”
That skeptical attitude—I’m not so sure about that—typifies Ransbotham’s cast of mind. He’s unusual among IT experts in that he’s not an evangelist for a future in which we’ll have outsourced all our mundane tasks to personal robots, miniature drones, and driverless cars. If anything, he’s a contrarian who is as likely to point out the downside of some IT development as he is to sing hosannas to it.
Asked about the benefits of virtual private networks, for example, he notes that while a VPN masks someone’s online browsing, it also may make that person a more attractive target. He points out that a VPN, in effect, says to a hacker, “Look, this person must be trying to hide something valuable.” Few people, after all, feel a need to cloak their visits to the New York Times website.
The UFO Lesson
That’s the sort of insight Ransbotham discusses in his MIT Sloan Management Review blog too. His most recent post, based on a project by Boston College students, highlights what seems a ridiculous and puzzling phenomenon: UFO sightings have increased exponentially over the last 40 years. By his reckoning, this isn’t because an alien invasion is imminent. It’s because reporting sightings is so much easier, thanks to the Internet and the National UFO Reporting Center. When something is easy, people do it—especially if they can make a little harmless mischief while they’re at it.
The lesson for business people isn’t that they should ignore reports of UFOs. Rather, they should step back and think critically about the collection of the data itself. “We have much more data than ever before,” Ransbotham writes. “But managers must be careful to understand how the data was generated to be able to make good decisions.”
In that vein, a sensible response to the uptick in reported UFO sightings wouldn’t be to start buying up rental properties in alien-friendly locales like McMinnville, Oregon or Devils Tower, Wyoming. But it might be to invest in movies and video games with extraterrestrial themes (since some people clearly have time on their hands and an interest in the outré).
Likewise, consider Ransbotham’s new initiative on artificial intelligence at the MIT Sloan Management Review.
Hypesters prattle about how AI will make for a future so bright you’ll have to wear shades while Jeremiahs prophesy it’ll bring about a dystopia where few people have jobs. Ransbotham sees the prospects differently. He’s not so much worried about AI sapping employment, though he acknowledges that it may replace a goodly portion of the jobs of, say, radiologists and mortgage processors or, closer to home, educators. He’s more concerned that the greater speed it brings to business—like the ability to process mortgage applications overnight—will introduce new risks. Managers, he writes on his blog, “may not have the opportunity to intervene before the money is gone from a risky loan.”
More broadly, as firms rush to move at the speed of AI, they may careen out of control. “The breakneck pace may reward risky behavior as organizations excel—until they crash,” he writes. “A breakneck pace is called ‘breakneck’ for a reason.”
In addition to his blog posts, Ransbotham also oversees surveys of IT professionals conducted by the Sloan Review and writes reports on the findings. The latest, published this past spring, is titled “Analytics as a Source of Business Innovation” and addresses how companies are using data and analytics to devise new products, services, and processes and thus deriving competitive advantage from their data smarts.
The report offers the example of Bridgestone Americas, the tire company, which is remaking its operations to exploit its burgeoning supply of data. Its analytics team is using data to identify the best locations for new stores and to automate the provision of inventory to the company’s 2,220 stores. The latter enables Bridgestone to have the right tires in stock when customers need them and not carry excess inventory—a substantial cost when you’re selling something bulky and heavy like tires. The Bridgestone team is also seeking ways to prompt customers to come in for new tires based on the odometer readings of their cars. As Ransbotham and his coauthor write in the report: “This new reliance on analytics to inform executive decision-making and to develop new services reflects a cultural shift for Bridgestone’s operations in the United States.”
In addition to his work with the Sloan Review, Ransbotham does conventional academic publishing. Late last year, for example, he and Fichman, who chairs the Carroll School’s Information Systems department, and two colleagues from other universities wrote an essay for Information Systems Research in which they explored vulnerabilities created by digital advances. The first line of the essay epitomizes Ransbotham’s way of thinking: “Information technology,” it says, “incites hyperbole.”
They identify four ways in which IT can both bring anguish and create new efficiencies at the same time: increased visibility, enhanced cloaking, increased interconnectedness, and decreased costs.
Greater visibility, for example, comes from the data trail each of us creates as we not only browse the internet but increasingly use devices such as smartphones, fitness trackers, and web-connected thermostats and home-security cameras. “The negative side of enhanced visibility is that it can reveal information that people and organizations would prefer to keep—and often have a right to keep—hidden,” the professors write. Someone who hacked into your thermostat, for example, would have a pretty good idea of when you weren’t home.
The essay, which suggests promising lines of future inquiry for IT researchers, ends on cautionary note: “Research tends to gravitate towards positive aspects of innovation while negative aspects receive less attention.”
Or, as Ransbotham put it in a conversation: “It’s easy to talk about all the positives of technology, but there’s a lot of negatives, and we need to think about and mitigate those, too.”
Tim Gray is a freelance writer and a writing instructor at the Carroll School.
Photography by Gary Gilbert.