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Learn About a Lecturer: Chris Cunningham Uses Business Analytics Background in Classroom

Lecturer: Chris CunninghamSIS Lecturer Chris Cunningham

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Education: Undergraduate degree in history with a social studies concentration, University of North Carolina-Charlotte; MLIS, UNC Greensboro; PhD, University of South Carolina; currently working on an MBA from Kent State University.

What classes do you teach at SIS?

I am currently teaching INSC 514, technology foundations. I’ve also taught the business intelligence course, and I’ve also taught an information use course that has now been deprecated.

What has your experience been like as an SIS lecturer?

I was a little intimidated because this is the first true iSchool I’ve taught at. When I was at South Carolina University, it hadn’t become an iSchool yet, so I was a little hesitant in terms of what I was going to bring and I’ve really greatly enjoyed the student interaction.

The students really keep me on my toes and we have some very in-depth discussions and it forces me to bring my A-game to class every time. Even when assignments are submitted, I typically get questions that are less of “What did I do wrong?” and more, “Hey, can we go more in-depth because I obviously missed something?” I joke that Tennessee students try to suck the marrow out of the class, they don’t want just the introductory stuff, they want to go deeper and get an understanding.

I realize that the MSIS is an applied degree, and that’s often intimidating when you’re teaching. At the undergraduate level you have a bit more breathing space because they’re taking so many classes, if you don’t cover something in detail, chances are good it’ll be covered elsewhere. At the grad school level, you’ve got 12 classes or less, so to me that’s intimidating because this may be the only exposure my students get, and it may be applicable to not only their degree, but their careers.

I try to bring humor and excitement and have intro music when the class starts and get people excited. I realize that for a graduate student to have academics as even third on their priority list, we’re doing pretty good – people have kids, careers, parents, lives, and you’re trying to shove this extra cog into the machine and that’s very challenging.

The great thing about a degree in information sciences is this is probably the most flexible degree. One of the reasons why our degree gets me excited is it really is a scenario of “What do you want to do with it ?” and then we can take all the pieces and parts and really help students  build a degree to get the career they want, not just a job. I want to help them with a career so they can go do what they want to for the next 20 years.

I’m very passionate about our field and I really think we’ve got a lot of opportunity here, and some we simply haven’t been able to take advantage of yet. I think the powers that be are finally beginning to realize the opportunity here for not just having people go get jobs but for them really being able to build careers and how integral the LIS world is especially in today’s information society.

How did you become interested in information sciences?

I actually started out college in physics and math and discovered the job market for that at the time was really terrible and the expectation was you were going to get a graduate degree unless you were going to go teach high school somewhere. I had a job offer so I dropped out and went to work for several years and was between careers deciding what I wanted to do. I realized I was really close to a degree, so I took some history classes and was able to finish up my history degree. I was poking at the idea of maybe becoming a teacher, so I took the social studies concentration and had enough math and physics to minor in that.

When I was working, I kind of tripped over the MLIS and thought it was a really interesting degree in terms of my background in being a tech person but also having that applied focus – it’s not just a programming degree but looks at technology as a whole and approaches it in terms of helping people.

I was working at UNC-Charlotte as the graduate business coordinator for the College of Business. I was looking for a job and for the best way to leverage my MLIS degree and about that time, things kind of converged and one of my friends at USC said “Hey, we’re starting a PhD program, you should come down here.” So I went down there and they were very student-focused, and then the chair wanted to meet me and take me out to lunch. I hadn’t even submitted an application at that point, we were still in early talks, and that said a lot to me.

After that, I ended up getting a job at the University of southern Mississippi for a couple of years and then I recently transitioned back into the industry.

How do you use information sciences in your current career?

I have a career working as a business analyst, which is what encouraged me to pursue the MBA, and my concentration with the MBA is business analytics and that’s an important aspect of our world. I don’t think the LIS world gets our foot in the door enough, so I am hoping to take that information and bring it back to the LIS world.

I laugh when business people talk about analytics and how great it is because the information world has been doing this for decades. I take large amounts of information from various sources – such as sales, material costs, labor costs, all these various data points – and bundle them up looking for trends, inefficiencies, and for ways to really increase the bottom line for the company. I bring added value for why I’m on board and I do that in such a way that I can assign it a real number and not just say that I increased our efficiency by 10 percent, but that I saved the company $150,000 last year.

I also research alternative materials and look for ways to lower production costs. We had a couple of acquisitions and I had to try to go through and look at what they had and what we had and put those disparate pieces together, including going through and cataloging all the material that they had. I was able to put that in some organized manner so our production guys could go through it without having to order things we already had.

Another thing I’ve tried to do is work in knowledge management with the various skillsets our employees have and try to leverage those a little better – besides saying this is our production manager and this is what he does, we say what else does he know? Who does he know? A lot of times businesses really don’t leverage the skillsets people have.