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Pontikes Center combines artificial intelligence and analytics at CoB

October 04, 2018, Rhiannon Pyle


Southern Illinois University’s business programs are highly ranked and respected by industry leaders. The Pontikes Center for Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence in the College of Business further solidifies that reputation. The goal of the center is to combine artificial intelligence and analytics in the business curriculum in order for SIU undergraduate and graduate students to have a sense of real-world analytics applications.

Nearly two years ago, the need for artificial intelligence in analytics became obvious to Jim Nelson, the director of the Pontikes Center, after a combination of events.

Terry Clark, dean of the College of Business, approached him with the question, “Do you know analytics?”

Nelson replied affirmatively and the shift toward analytics began.

While at a conference, Nelson noticed that most schools produce analytics graduates whose skills are “too technical and specialized.” The number of positions available for these graduates is somewhat small and these analytics graduates often lose out to math majors who have a high understanding of statistics.

To Nelson, the next obvious step was to teach SIU students to fulfill the bridge-like roles of those managers and corporate workers who can correspond and understand both worlds of business and analytics. Nelson indicates there are a significant number of jobs for the highly sought applicants who possess the dual expertise.

Incorporating artificial intelligence into analytics allows businesses to predict future events or integrate relevant data that may exist outside the usual numbers-based system.

Nelson offers an analogy to illustrate just what artificial intelligence really is. You may see a rating of 4.5 for an item sold on Amazon, reflecting what purchasers perceive as its usefulness, appearance or operation. However, after viewing the comments, you discover that the item frequently doesn’t last longer than a year, highly devaluing that 4.5 rating.

“There is valuable information in the comments and that’s where artificial intelligence comes in,” Nelson said. Artificial intelligence can help you sort through difficult-to-assess data and allow you to see a bigger picture than a number could ever explain.

Nelson also noted that social media contains a broad set of artificial intelligence data that is waiting to be explored. This all goes to explain why businesses and major corporations value graduates who are proficient in understanding and applying the various aspects of analytics.

“Several Industries need more than just numbers,” Nelson said.

Filling this need, SIU’s business college offers the only AACSB-accredited program focusing on artificial intelligence. The online Master of Business Administration program now offers an MBA degree concentration in analytics for managers. However, Students who already have degrees can take the courses to obtain a Certificate in Analytics.

The concentration involves the completion of four courses: data science and analytics for managers, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence for managers, advanced analytics and visualization for managers and an MBA analytics capstone course that applies techniques learned from the previous three classes to real-world scenarios.

The involvement of major corporations with the Pontikes Center helps connect SIU to potential employers while also ensuring the students are receiving analytical knowledge broadly applicable throughout different companies. The Pontikes Center board consists of members from industry leaders such as Caterpillar Inc., The Boeing Company, Edward Jones, CME Group Inc., Nike, Inc. and R1 RCM. This diverse business representation helps assure the program and graduates will flourish.

Dr. Shreepada Tripathy, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the SIU School of Medicine, is currently taking the artificial intelligence and analytics courses in order to “deliver the most accurate care for children.”

Tripathy provides an excellent example of the broad application of artificial intelligence and analytics courses. Tripathy said the courses help him view the patients as a population when considering what is best from an administrative level, which is different from what is required from him as a doctor.

“The courses are really fun and does not contain a lot of medicine,” said Tripathy. Instead, business components of what he is learning helps him approach his practice and medical questions more holistically.

“The leadership in analytics has potential in care delivery,” he said. “The courses are helping me understand why I do what I do and then allow me to deliver better care,” Tripathy said.

Nelson has played a critical role in the success and repurposing of the Pontikes Center, originally created in 1989 for management of information. Nelson really enjoys going out into the world to collect data and ideas and using them to create applications which are functional for businesses.

As a licensed pilot, Nelson is able to scan the business world from an alternate point of view, much like getting an aerial view of earth while flying. Nelson describes his time spent in the air as “freeing”, and “mind-clearing.”

Nelson is a major asset to the College of Business, as he helped develop and now directs the Pontikes Center. He, in turn, gives significant credit and thanks to Dean Clark and Chancellor Carlo Montemango for their support and assistance with the operational aspects of the center to allow him to focus on the analytical part.

The Pontikes Center will continue to grow and evolve. Plans are already underway to host an analytics symposium for business leaders from around the United States. Nelson uses the term “cross-pollination” to describe how businesses will share analytic topics at the symposium, which could help improve the way they all view and implement analytics.

The CoB is fortunate to have such an innovative and progressive center. The future is exciting for the Pontikes Center and the students benefitting from this research and collaboration.