Selling the Power of Statistics


A few weeks ago we learned that Warren Buffett is a big IBM fan (a $10 billion fan, that is). Having heard that I went over to the IBM web site to see what they’re doing these days. For starters, they’re not selling computers anymore! At least not the kind that I would use. One of the big things they do now is “Business Analytics and Optimization” (i.e. statistics), which is one of the reasons they bought SPSS and then later Algorithmics.

Roaming around the IBM web site, I found this little video on how IBM is involved with tennis matches like the US Open. It’s the usual promo video: a bit cheesy, but pretty interesting too. For example, they provide all the players an automatically generated post-game “match analysis DVD” that has summaries of all the data from their match with corresponding video.

It occurred to me that one of the challenges that a company like IBM faces is selling the “power of analytics” to other companies. They need to make these promo videos because, I guess, some companies are not convinced they need this whole analytics thing (or at least not from IBM). They probably need to do methods and software development too, but getting the deal in the first place is at least as important.

In contrast, here at Johns Hopkins, my experience has been that we don’t really need to sell the “power of statistics” to anyone. For the most part, researchers around here seem to be already “sold”. They understand that they are collecting a ton of data and they’re going to need statisticians to help them understand it. Maybe Hopkins is the exception, but I doubt it.

Good for us, I suppose, for now. But there is a danger that we take this kind of monopoly position for granted. Companies like IBM hire the same people we do (including one grad school classmate) and there’s no reason why they couldn’t become direct competitors. We need to continuously show that we can make sense of data in novel ways.