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Oct 21, 2020 2020-10 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Co-linking: How crossing boundaries can help innovators reach the goal line

Getting new technology off the ground is challenging enough without expanding its uses to other fields.  But what if those interdisciplinary explorations could actually make your product launch more successful? It’s a concept called co-linking, and Zack Kertcher, clinical assistant professor of business administration at Gies, believes it could play a key role in advancing innovation.

“Working with collaborators in another field — and creating use cases – allows new users to buy into the potential of a complex technology,” said Kertcher. Greater exposure means more players are invested in your success – and there are other benefits as well. Adapting your product for new fields can also provide a clear idea of where and how your product should evolve. It can also spur investment from venture capitalists and government agencies that can initiate cross-field projects, broadening your exposure and leading to a more successful launch.

So where did Kertcher develop the ideas that could be so important to the scrappy startups of tomorrow? By looking at the pioneers of the past. In this case, Kertcher studied the evolution of grid computing, the precursor to today’s vast cloud computing operations. By analyzing the cross-boundary collaborations that helped shape today’s computing environment, he and his research partners created a model of co-linking that could help ensure more innovative ideas make it from the drawing board to the shelf.

That’s the power of data analysis. With the right information and modeling, lessons from the past can be gleaned to better inform the future. But doing it right takes data. Lots and lots of data. As well as the know-how to effectively mine it. Those are all things that Kertcher hopes to bring to students at Gies.

Originally from Israel, Kertcher began his career in information systems, working for global brands like Coca-Cola and Compaq. At the University of Chicago, he broadened his horizons, earning a master’s in international relations and a PhD in sociology, and developing a passion for interdisciplinary collaboration that led to interesting opportunities at the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere.

“I ended up bouncing around all sorts of places and started my own small data science shop,” said Kertcher. “The idea for me was to try to connect the qualitative with the quantitative and figure out interesting ways to think about research, and data science specifically.”

He also moved into teaching, designing, and leading graduate courses for a number of schools, including the Quinlan Business School at Loyola University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Chicago. But the more he taught, the more he realized there was a gap between what students learned in the classroom and what they experienced in the real world.

“The problem with teaching analytics is that the data tends to be very thin,” said Kertcher. Because companies don’t like to share their proprietary information, students end up using the same basic data from the same common repositories. That leads to a huge disconnect when students enter the real world and encounter data that’s far more complex. To solve that, he introduced the idea of data cases, which expands on the familiar case study framework by focusing on the challenges surrounding data and giving data a context that helps students think more critically.

In addition to his teaching skills, which will be on full display in courses like BADM 210 Business Analytics I, Kertcher will also bringing a treasure trove of data. Among these data are a 2.7-terabyte collection of every press release ever published in English; a full, uniquely rich set of company disclosure data; and seventeen years of full, detailed HR data from the City of Chicago.  He suggests that these data, and other data that he has, will help develop data cases, open the doors to new research, and develop co-linking: collaborating with faculty in different areas at Gies.

Kertcher says he was drawn to Gies by its interdisciplinary environment, as well as the access it provides to phenomenal resources. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications, for example, is located on Illinois’ campus and will be instrumental in his research. More than that, he’s excited by all the potential he sees.

“It’s an extremely energetic place,” said Kertcher. “I think Gies is set up to innovate in so many spaces. You really see it in areas like online programs that are leading the world. The growth is phenomenal. I haven’t seen it elsewhere, and I can see it happening in research as well.”