Raising The Bar For Real-World Learning In Analytics And Retail

By Mark Witten

When Benny Cohen, BCom’82, launched KPI Digital – formerly KPI (Knowledge Providers Inc.) – in 2001, he saw an opportunity to provide companies with precisely the kind of analytical information and insights they wanted but weren’t getting from big investments in ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software systems.

His idea was to deliver business intelligence and actionable insights from data to help companies make better and faster business decisions: “Many companies would invest millions of dollars in comprehensive ERPs, which were great in improving their operations. But ERPs did not provide the analytical information and insights managers were looking for to optimize their business decisions, and to act quickly and effectively,” explains Cohen, who founded his very successful business after working for 18 years as a programmer, analyst and branch manager at Syntax.net, a leading ERP provider.

Deep dive into data for actionable insights

“Companies needed business intelligence – based on data, trends and insights – about key factors driving their business. Who are the top salespeople and customers, and what are the top products or product lines? What is going on in the business now and what will happen in the future? Companies are looking for actionable insights from their huge volumes of data,” says Cohen, whose very first client, Montreal-based retailer Dans Un Jardin, increased sales dramatically after the company made changes based on KPI’s business intelligence insights.

KPI partnered initially with Cognos (acquired by IBM in 2008) — an early leader in business intelligence and performance management software – and today partners with top technology firms to deliver innovative solutions that customers are looking for to analyze their data, improve business decisions and deliver excellent business outcomes. “I started KPI Digital with the premise that my customers were interested in having all the information they were looking for at their fingertips. That was the game changer,” he says.

Big proponent of experiential and team learning

Cohen learned the value and acquired the skills of collaboration, teamwork and building good partnerships as a student at Desautels, where he majored in management information systems and finance. “I was interested in information systems and McGill was the place to be. I enjoyed the culture because although it was competitive, it fostered deep collaboration. The professors encouraged teamwork on projects. That experience taught me how to think, how to work in a team environment with great collaborators and intelligent people, and it gave me a more global perspective,” he says.

Cohen is a big believer in the benefits of experiential and team learning for current students in the Desautels Faculty of Management’s Master of Management in Analytics (MMA) Program.

In 2019, he established the Benny and Renee Cohen Masters Leadership Award to support an outstanding student entering the MMA Program or the new Master of Management in Retailing (MMR) Program, which will start in August of this year. The award was created to highlight the importance of experiential learning at Desautels and the need for student learning to go beyond the classroom.

“The biggest advantage of experiential learning for analytics students is to get a pragmatic business perspective on what they’re studying. Clients invest in technology as an enabler for their business solutions and outcomes. Students get to understand the practical applications of analytics and AI by working with clients on projects to meet their business needs. They learn from their experience that companies don’t buy AI, but outcomes that AI can lead to,” he says.

Partnering with students on retail and transportation client solutions

Cohen supports the MMA program’s strong emphasis on experiential learning directly by bringing Desautels students on board to collaborate with his firm’s data scientists on specific projects to develop business solutions for clients. The student teams have worked with KPI Digital clients such as art supplies retailer DeSerres, Lactanet (Canada’s national dairy producers’ organization), and a Quebec-based transportation consortium to build and implement solutions for real-world business problems.

“ We bring students into the client environment, and they get to apply what they learn in the classroom in business to achieve real outcomes. We also contribute our time, knowledge, and expertise as guest speakers in some of the courses. I have met the directors and professors in the MMA and MMR programs, and was extremely impressed with their knowledge and vision,” says Cohen.

He is grateful for the opportunities that a McGill education has made possible in his own career, for his wife Renee, ’83 (Sociology), and their children. “I got so much out of my experience at McGill and the university has been a big part of our family’s life. I want to give back by supporting these programs in every way I can,” says Cohen, whose daughter Carly Cohen, BCom’14, also majored in management information systems at Desautels and is now a senior manager of digital transformation at KPI Digital, while his son, Casey Cohen, BSc’17, is a PhD’22 candidate in experimental medicine at McGill.

Cohen emphasizes that companies like KPI Digital, which support student experiential learning opportunities, benefit in turn because they are investing in the talent pool for their own future growth. “The MMA graduates are talented, and you have to be very smart to get in. Analytics is our business, and we are interested in hiring people who are intelligent and have practical experience. When we look at the next few years for KPI Digital, the number one challenge is finding the right talent to continue our growth,” he says.

Retail industry is investing heavily in digital transformation

Perhaps no industry better illustrates the challenges and opportunities for digital transformation before, during and after the pandemic than retail. Although KPI Digital has served many clients in the manufacturing, banking and insurance industries, retail is an industry where analytics has had a transformative impact on how businesses connect with customers and drive sales ever since Cohen advised his first client, Dans Un Jardin.

Giving Desautels students the opportunity to help solve real-world challenges in retail and other industries is how Cohen envisions experiential learning, with an emphasis on how to reach customers effectively in a digital world. “Retail is a sweet spot for KPI Digital, and we understand retail very well. Faced with competition from the Amazons of the world, we believe that all retailers must digitally transform to survive in the future. The pandemic made obvious what was there before,” he says.

Cohen is a proud advocate and promoter of McGill, a world-renowned university that has given so much to him and his family. As an entrepreneur, he launched and built a successful Analytics, AI & Digital Transformation consulting firm that provides its customers with innovative business solutions. He is keen to support and promote Desautels’ leading-edge MMA and MMR programs with scholarship and experiential learning opportunities for these high-calibre students. “ The MMA produces so much talent and there is a strong demand for the types of skills and experience that students will gain in the new MMR program. I want to support these programs because I believe in the tremendous value they are creating today and the future impact their graduates will have on innovation in the marketplace,” he says.