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AT&T gives $600,000 for new research center

By Sookhan Ho

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 18 - January 30, 1997

Virginia Tech has received $600,000 from AT&T to support a new center that will do research on the latest techniques to analyze the large amounts of data that the telecommunications company processes.

The new AT&T Center for the Scientific Visualization of Organizations began operations this month. It is based in the Pamplin College of Business and directed by Management Professor Steve Markham.

AT&T's billing operations, Markham said, faces "a monumental challenge: how to keep track of each and every call message that crosses its long-distance lines and ensure that each message finds its way to the proper customer account to ultimately become a bill."

The company's Consumer Process Operation Center (CPOC), established to collect real-time data from its extensive billing system and to monitor the system's performance, is simply overwhelmed with the quantity and detail of information, Markham said.

"Given the call volume, the numbers are staggering. Couple this with the number of software changes that are required to keep up with the continuing changes in optional calling plans--and the task is truly daunting."

Markham says the new research center will help AT&T analyze its data through "scientific visualization," a computer-based technique that enables enormous amounts of information to be displayed in full-motion, three-dimensional, color format.

In the practice of medicine, for example, computerized tomography helps doctors visualize the density of the 3-D layers of a human body by "stacking" two-dimensional "slices" of X-ray images, Markham said. Another scientific visualization technique, positron-emission tomography, allows metabolic activity to be visualized.

While scientific visualization has become a popular research tool in the natural sciences, he says, the technique is still little known among business researchers. The new center, he hopes, will change that.

"Business environments are becoming more complex. To the extent that scientific visualization can aid managers in their ability to form mental images of a system--such as AT&T's billing system--and, at the same time, obtain detailed operational information, they should be better able to understand the complex and often ambiguous requirements of managerial tasks."

Cada Grove, district manager of CPOC, said: "Historically, the quality movement focused on just one measure at a time, such as defects. Through visualization processes, we hope to capture, in one glance, multiple measures of system performance that will paint a more comprehensive picture of how we are performing."

The center expects to support the research of faculty members and graduate students from such disciplines as organizational science, change management, management science, information technology, accounting, engineering, statistics, and graphic arts.

The center is a result of Markham's contacts and consulting work with AT&T. He and three other Pamplin faculty members teach courses on quality management at the AT&T School of Business in Somerset, N.J., in a professional certification program launched jointly by the AT&T School in partnership with the Pamplin College.

Markham, who does research on organizational effectiveness, says the new center's research capabilities will be enhanced by the installation of a high-end graphics workstation in the college that will link up directly with AT&T computers. The workstation will also network with other visualization centers on campus.