Commerce applies itself to make use of statistics
MATHEMATICAL and statistical analysis is steadily moving into the mainstream of business, according to Ian Gordon, director of the University of Melbourne’s Statistical Consulting Centre.
The centre provides statistical services to companies and governments, as well as other parts of the university. It operates within the department of mathematics and statistics and draws on university expertise from a range of fields.
‘‘ The Statistical Consulting Centre is about finding quantitative solutions to real- world problems,’’ Gordon says.
‘‘ There is an increasing desire, especially in the private sector, for solid, provable conclusions from an independent source.
‘‘ Going with gut feel just doesn’t cut it any more.
‘‘ At the same time, in the past few years there has been a greater willingness of maths people to get out into the marketplace and to show what they can do.’’
The centre’s single largest area of work relates to epidemiology, involving the distribution of illnesses in populations.
‘‘ That type of knowledge is extremely important to pharmaceutical companies in research objectives and test design, for example, and in submissions to government regulators,’’ Gordon says.
‘‘ The next largest category is management, where we might apply statistical analysis to establish how a company is really performing. That information is essential for effective strategic management.
‘‘ But the growth area, as I see it, is the application of statistical methods to environmental issues, such as the impact of various factors on the ecology of an area.’’
One aspect of the centre’s work is the design of surveys and the analysis of results. Other projects deal with customer and market analysis, but the centre’s focus is always on the statistical perspective.
Gordon also points to specific projects such as the work of Ray Watson to develop a detailed rating system for the quality of beef. The system, designed with Meat Standards Australia, is being used extensively and is still being improved.
In another project, Ken Sharpe helped design methods for improved testing for illicit drugs in sports: some of this work was put to use in the Sydney Olympics.
Gordon says one challenge is putting statistical analysis into language that is useful to clients.
‘‘ We try to make our analytical methods transparent, avoiding the specialised language of maths and speaking in terms our clients understand,’’ he says.
‘‘ A lot of our clients come to us by referral and there is a lot of repeat work, so I suppose that means we are providing them with what they need.’’
A problem for the centre has been recruiting people with the right skills because it can’t compete with the salaries offered by large companies.
‘‘ It’s a problem, yes, but we have our own selling points,’’ Gordon says.
‘‘ What a lot of people who work at this level really want is a stimulating environment, flexible work conditions and the opportunity to apply their research skills across a gamut of areas. That’s what we can give them.’’