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In a data-driven world, businesses crunch the numbers

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Business Data

As hard drives continue to get bigger and the number of digital devices businesses use continues to multiply, the amount of data that businesses can and do collect increases exponentially. As that data continues to increase in both amount and complexity, businesses and organizations are using that information to find trends and help inform decisions.

Data isn’t new to Mayo Clinic Health System — Franciscan Healthcare, which has been invested in data analysis for more than a decade. But data is being used more and more on the business side of the company, to help find trends and craft everything from new products and services to individual marketing campaigns.

Cindy Roberts, manager for market research and analytics, has been with the system for eleven years, and came to the company during a time when there was a need for more market research and use of data.

In that time, she said Franciscan Healthcare has become very savvy in using and analyzing customer and market data to do research and analysis. The business has tied into patient data, state data and consumer data to look at trends and issues at both a strategic level nationwide and to see which trends are also in play at the local level.

“It (data) absolutely impacts the decision-making here,” Roberts said. “Data provides better insights. We can use data to objectively look at things and tell better stories on what is going on.”

Winona State University mathematics and statistics professor Chris Malone has seen the increase in use and reliance on data by area businesses. Not only are there more rows of data to compare, data sets are containing more types of information and this increase means businesses can find more sophisticated relationships within the numbers.

As the amount of data grows, so too does the need for people trained in data analysis and new techniques to collect, sort and find information buried in the numbers. In response, Malone is working to craft new curriculum and hopes either this fall or the near future to have Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system approval to offer a program in data analysis.

“We have to adapt,” Malone said about the work to create a data analysis program. “Businesses are looking to use all that data to inform and change.”

One of the organizations that has already partnered with WSU was the Rushford Economic Development Authority. Rushford EDA president Tom Driscoll said the partnership came about from a large data project that began in 2012, when city and business leaders partnered with the EDA to launch a business retention and expansion study.

The survey asked questions about a business’ history, experiences, and feelings about community services, amenities and other factors. Added to that was additional data from the US Census Bureau on demographics and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development job and payroll data.

“By the time we got done with all of that, we had tens of thousands of data points,” Driscoll said. “We went to WSU because we needed to focus that information.”

Driscoll and the EDA worked with Malone and several of his students to analyze the data over the last two years. And their work brought to light some interesting trends, not all of which were obvious from casual observation of the city’s business climate.

“We learned, a little to our surprise, that since before the (2007) flood, we were losing jobs,” Driscoll said. “Rushford has been losing jobs every quarter from 2007 to the present.”

This loss was a slow trickle, a job or two every quarter. But it went against what some businesses had seen anecdotally, who thought the city was stable or growing and pointed to businesses that had hired new employees recently.

But the aggregate data showed this wasn’t true, and with the data to back them up, Driscoll said the EDA could then take this information and bring it back to the business community.

“It wasn’t a case for alarm,” he said. “But bells did go off. The business community was then able to consider this in terms of hiring and growth decisions.”

Driscoll said the reception from the business community to the data has been mixed. Data is not everyone’s cup of tea, he said, and not everyone is sold on the subject.

But most have been supportive, including the Rushford Area Chamber of Commerce, the cities involved in the work and many other business owners. But data isn’t a panacea, he said, it is just a tool.

“Data doesn’t give you any answers,” Driscoll said. “It doesn’t tell you how to respond. You have to make the decision. But now you are making a decision based on better information.”


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