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CityU is the ideal place to research the use of big data

Pietro Immordino
DBA student
Pietro Immordino

After a successful 20-year career in international banking, Pietro Immordino felt the time was right for some new challenges. After taking a short sabbatical to weigh his options, he decided to undertake not one, but two new projects. In 2014, Immordino founded his own business, PI CONS (HK), which provides consultancy services in project management, business analysis, and effective change management. He also enrolled in the DBA (doctor of business administration) programme at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), choosing the study of how big data analytics are applied as his research topic.

Immordino says he enjoys the joint challenge of running his business and studying for the DBA, but he often wishes there were more than 24 hours in a day. “I wanted to go back to university, and the CityU DBA really caught my eye,” says Immordino, who already has a master’s degree in computer science and finance from the University of Zurich. “During my years in banking, I noticed that a lot of projects don’t achieve their objectives. I was keen to discover why this happened, and where improvements could be made.”

The results of a 2014 survey by the Project Management Institute add credence to Immordino’s observation. The survey showed that organisations around the world lost US$109 million for every US$1 billion spent on initiatives meant to enhance productivity and performance. Immordino noticed two salient points. Large sums of money were being wasted, and the vast amount of operational data now available to organisations was not being utilised as well as it could be.

“For my thesis, I want to see what insights can be gained by collecting and analysing data produced during the life cycle of projects, and how that can be used to predict future success,” Immordino says. “I’m trying to answer questions about the role big data analytics can play in positively influencing outcomes.”

To this end, his research is mainly focused on the banking industry, which is currently undergoing a process of wide-ranging transformations. This is driven by external factors, which include changing client needs, advances in technology, and a tighter regulatory environment. But there are also internal factors, such as greater product complexity, increased pressure on costs, and the ever-present concerns about narrowing profit margins.

While banks can see the need for better change management and more productive IT strategies, their projects are still beset by expensive budget overruns, delays, and failures to deliver. These put a drag on day-to-day business activities, and can even create an “existential threat”.

“In the research literature, I found a hundred different definitions of project success,” says Immordino, who began his DBA in September 2014, and hopes to complete his thesis within four years. “People mostly talk about being on time, on budget, and having functionality. But that is a very limited view. Those three criteria can be met without users actually getting what they need from the project. What’s more, if you have more than a handful of stakeholders, they will sometimes have contradictory objectives.”

What Immordino particularly likes about the CityU programme is its emphasis on addressing real-world problems and finding relevant solutions. Early on, he was impressed by the classes on research methodologies, noting the emphasis they placed on proper academic analysis and sourcing valid data. He says he has benefitted from the guidance and insights of professors, adding that the regular workshops with fellow students, where theories can be tested and ideas evaluated, have also been useful.

“The aim is to find new knowledge, not an obvious outcome,” he says. “At present, I’m sounding my research objectives with colleagues and peers to confirm some of the ideas, and to shape a questionnaire which will be sent to a larger population.”

The focus is on large strategic projects, like the replacement of back-end systems, or the industry-wide adjustments needed to comply with new regulatory requirements. The answers will help to find patterns where data analytics and algorithms can give an overview, and act as foundation for making decisions. The aim is to help businesses avoid making common mistakes, and repeating mistakes they have already made.

“The DBA is a journey which involves some dead ends, but the challenge is to find new ways to achieve what you want,” says Immordino, who hopes to have his final research proposal accepted by the end of this year.

“Fortunately, CityU offers very strong support, and it has a very good infrastructure. Library resources are online, and the professors are very open; they encourage you to reach out to them if you have questions, or need help in any way. They are also receptive to feedback on how to improve the programme, and how to make things smoother for future cohorts,” Immordino says.