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Business Analytics & O.R.: Conference chair Maher Lahmar: Welcome to the best show in Vegas!

Following is an interview with Maher Lahmar, solution executive,  Watson Customer Engagement at IBM, and chair of the 2017 INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & Operations Research:

Maher Lahmar

Maher Lahmar

Can you tell us why the 2017 Business Analytics Conference is a must-attend event?

The analytics conference is an annual event that focuses entirely on real-world applications of analytics, presented by industry and university leaders. The conference includes keynote speeches, invited talks, panels, poster sessions, career fair and an executive forum. This event also hosts the Edelman competition presentations and the Edelman Gala.

The size and format of the conference allows attendees to easily take conversations beyond the scheduled sessions, network and advance their careers, whether you are a young professional, an executive or an academician. This year’s conference will take place in Las Vegas on April 2-4. We want it to be the best show in Vegas. Analytics show, I mean. For more information, visit our website: http://meetings2.informs.org/wordpress/analytics2017/.

As the conference marks its 17th anniversary, how do you see the state of analytics?

Actually, it is impressive how much analytics practice has evolved to become an essential pillar of today’s organizations. Whether it is a well-established company in full transformation, a young firm that is disrupting its industry or a government organization seeking efficiency, analytics and technology are becoming pervasive across all industries. We are in an era where the analytics practice is not solely the job of dedicated teams, but pervasive all across the organization and executive ranks. I believe the days where we had to raise awareness of our discipline and convince executives of the value we can add are behind us. INFORMS and its analytics conference in particular were pioneers in elevating the role of analytics in business and society and have contributed immensely to this achievement. Job well done, but far from complete. Analytics still has a huge untapped potential that we have to continue to promote.

What would you consider the main theme of the analytics conference this year?

That was the first question I asked myself when I was handed the baton. We would definitely want the conference to be an opportunity to celebrate achievement and recognize talent, but also we would like it to be a reminder that our discipline is going through major changes. Analytics practice is shifting gears from insights to action. This does not necessarily mean that insights are no more needed, it just implies that we see more and more of the analytics applications trying to go beyond handing in an insight to recommending a decision and taking actions. Change comes with challenges but also creates opportunities. We would like our attendees to get a glimpse of those challenges and potential opportunities to take their business further and advance their careers.

Can you tell us more about what triggered that change?

There is no question that the perceived value of analytics is growing, but so are the expectations. Technological innovations have pushed the boundaries of what is possible with analytics. Executives are recognizing the importance of new sources of data and advantages of automation, and decision-makers are demanding that analytics professionals be more engaged in the decision process. As a result, a client who could have been content with a visual dashboard deliverable a decade ago would be less impressed with anything but a decision agent curating external data feeds today. I may be painting a dramatic picture here, but my point is that things are changing, and we would like to make sure that analytics professionals are aware of it and ahead of the curve.

How will the analytics conference help practitioners adapt to these changes?

Obviously, meeting these expectations requires practitioners to expand their knowledge, sharpen their skills and develop new ones. This is reflected in the mix of talks we have planned this year. As you know, over the last years, we introduced new tracks on Unstructured Data Applications and Big Data. This year we introduced tracks on IoT and Emerging Analytics applications. We also wanted to bring a flavor of Las Vegas to the conference rooms by dedicating a track to Gaming, Entertainment and Sports Analytics. This is in addition to the talks on new techniques and applications in traditional tracks such as Marketing Analytics, Supply Chain Management and Decision Analysis. We also arranged for machine-learning technical sessions such as the one on Deep Learning and scheduled sponsored workshops on the use of analytical tools. We hope to offer our attendees the opportunity to reflect on all the changes in our discipline, and what that means to their careers and our profession as a whole.

There is a surge of interest in machine learning. How does the conference embrace that?

Actually, machine learning has been part of our conference for a long time under different labels and tracks. In this event, it is no exception. For instance, we will hear about how ML techniques can help optimize eCommerce merchandising at Home Depot and learn about the algorithms that drive surge pricing at Uber apps. We will also get a glimpse into IBM Watson research on how to add personality and emotion dimensions to conversational agents such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. This is in addition to a variety of other applications that range from IoT to supply chain management and marketing.

Many are still skeptical about the hype surrounding machine learning. What is your perspective on that?

I am among those who believe that machine learning is just at the beginning of the journey. Many of the emerging applications such as driverless cars and conversation assistants are real, but would be considered science fiction just a decade ago. I think what is feeding that sense of hype is the lack of understanding of the limitations and complexities involved in deploying machine learning algorithms, and in some cases the obsession of the technical aspect over the business ROI. I would like to quote Jean Utke’s, an Allstate data scientist and a speaker at the conference, who said, “there are no off-the-shelf solutions.”

While there are no ready solutions out there, there is a tendency to make algorithms and emerging applications easily available for consumption to the data scientist and developers community. For instance, we will hear firsthand how a start-up called Satalia offers scalable optimization-as-a-service solutions bridging the gap between academia and industry. On a similar topic, we will learn how Deloitte consultants overcome the challenges of scaling NLP implementations in large organizations. We are also dedicating an HBR special panel session where we will raise provocative questions to help the audience distinguish the promise from the current state of machine learning.

The interests of analytical professionals evolve with their careers. What can analytical leaders look forward to at the conference?

Thanks for asking this question. We typically tend to focus on the scientific side of the analytics practice. Many of our attendees hold mid-management and senior leadership positions in their respective organizations and see the conference as an opportunity to exchange experience with peers on how to build and manage analytical teams. In all conversations, the question of how to attract, recruit and retain analytical talent continues to be one of the top challenges they face. This year, we will hear from business leaders about the importance of soft skills in delivering successful analytics, how they managed to build high-performing teams, and what causes of failure to avoid. In addition, we are organizing a panel that brings leaders from a variety of companies and recruiting firms to discuss “How to Grow Analytical Teams.”

Anything else to add?

I want to highlight that many of our committee members are volunteering practitioners who have busy schedules and travel commitments, but are very passionate about the analytics discipline. This meant that the INFORMS staff had to adjust to different schedules and pace of work. For these reasons, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the conference committee members and INFORMS team. They are the ones who went the extra mile to make it happen.

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