IBM's Watson Challenges University of Rochester MBA Students

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2012-05-17

IBM's Watson Challenges University of Rochester MBA Students

The University of Rochester Simon School of Business and IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced winners of the first Watson academic case competition.

The competition is a way to develop new ideas for harnessing IBM Watson technology to solve societal and business challenges while helping students advance technology and business skills for jobs of the future. It also is part of a series of competitions for students studying a variety of academic concentrations.

Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, was built by a team of scientists to accomplish a grand challenge €“a computing system that rivals a human€™s ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence. The Watson technology represents a new class of cognitive systems that can quickly sift through large volumes of big data, and apply advanced analytics to improve decision making across a variety of use cases and industries.

IBM said 25 MBA students with concentrations ranging from marketing and business consulting to finance and entrepreneurship competed in teams submitting seven proposals outlining how Watson's technology could be applied to solve complex challenges in the transportation, energy, retail and public sector industries.

Three winning ideas were selected by a panel of judges made up of faculty, regional business leaders and IBM executives. Team evaluations were based on the ability of the students to clearly articulate the business case, including market research, tactical planning and feasibility while exhibiting an understanding of how to harness big data for strategic outcomes.

The winning case studies included a crisis-management capability to better allocate resources during disasters, a mining application to improve the effectiveness of natural gas, petroleum and other natural resources exploration, and streamlining the customs process for airports to reduce wait times.

First place went to €œManaging Data in the Eye of a Storm,€ which showed how IBM's Watson technology could be put to work combining weather-related data and the latest census numbers to help organizations better prepare for a crisis administration and allocate resources accordingly. The first place student team concluded that Watson's ability to look at unstructured and structured information could more accurately identify weather patterns and help improve response times.

Second place went to a project called, €œMining for Insights, Literally,€ which recommended that the Watson technology could help energy companies improve the understanding of environmental impacts, and regulatory and safety information to reduce accidents while avoiding the over-exploration of natural resources. This team relied on Watson's cognitive-reasoning capabilities to deliver precise and accurate results to optimize exploration efforts.

Third place went to €œUnpacking Big Data Improves Travel Experience.€ About 1 million people travel into the United States every day, and during the summer this number peaks, resulting in long lines, congestion delays and aggravated travelers. This team devised an approach using Watson's technology to quickly analyze massive amounts of unstructured information in order to enhance security, reduce wait times and improve the travel experience in airports while taking the guesswork out of the customs process.

€œThe Simon School is deeply appreciative of the opportunity to partner together with IBM in the big data area, and sees great opportunity for building further impact in scholarship and teaching through such an initiative in fields as diverse as finance, marketing, consulting, operations and health care management," said Mark Zupan, dean of the University of Rochester, Simon Graduate School of Business, in a statement.

Analytics Skills Are Highly Desirable in Todays Job Market


Students in the top two winning teams held concentrations in marketing and business, a sign of the growing need and interest for hands-on expertise in analytics, outside of traditional engineering and computer science programs. As companies look to gain faster and more accurate insight into customer opinion and preferences, the ability for graduates to strengthen skills in analytics is making them highly sought after in today's job market, IBM said.

The Watson case competition supports the university's commitment to incorporating analytics and evidence-based reasoning across all areas of business, ranging from marketing to economics and brand development to entrepreneurship. The initiative is part of IBM€™s ongoing collaboration with educational institutions to strengthen science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

€œThe case competition provides a new way for students to bring forward game-changing ideas while providing them with the opportunity to hone their skills in important new areas, such as analytics and cognitive computing.€ said Manoj Saxena, general manager of IBM Watson Solutions, in a statement. €œOur goal is to inspire the next generation of business leaders to think differently about how technology can be used to transform business and redefine industries."

The case-based approach may help shape how IBM applies the Watson technology to client challenges across a variety of industries in the future. Watson is already being put to work in the health care and financial services industries. In a pilot program at WellPoint, the technology is helping medical professionals make more informed decisions related to patient-treatment options, and Citibank is evaluating new ways the technology can help improve the banking client experience.

Representing a fundamentally different type of technology, Watson is a cognitive system that learns and becomes more accurate over time by applying analytics and evidence-based reasoning to volumes of information. Like the human brain, Watson builds relationships between a variety of data sets and continuously processing and reprocessing information to draw deeper insights for better decision making.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a 24 percent increase in demand for professionals with management analysis skills over the next eight years. The McKinsey Global Institute projects a need for approximately 190,000 more workers with analytics expertise and 1.5 million more data-savvy managers in the United States.

The role and value of data is causing shifts inside organizations and across business cultures driving demand across a broad range of industries in the private and public sectors. These organizations are seeking new ways to tap information in traditional databases and unlock data tucked away in an unstructured format, including videos, comments on social media sites and text messages.

IBM's Watson academic case competition is the latest example of how the company is helping universities prepare students in new areas of computing and business leadership. The University of Rochester and IBM Watson case competition is in keeping with IBM's Academic Initiative, which delivers coursework, case studies and curricula to more than 6,000 universities and 30,000 faculty members worldwide to help students prepare for high-value future job opportunities. IBM worked closely with academic institutions during the development and introduction of Watson. Eight leading universities around the world participated in the development phase of the system, and more than 10,000 students watched Watson triumph on the Jeopardy quiz show in February 2011. 


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