Whether you're making automobiles, selling swimwear or recruiting college students, the ability to accurately predict demand for products or services represents an increasingly valuable tool for businesses, schools and government organizations. Issues facing practitioners in the rapidly expanding field of forecasting were the subject of SAS' inaugural F2006 Business Forecasting Conference (http://www.sas.com/events/fx/index.html), held June 5 and 6 at SAS world headquarters in Cary, NC.

The gathering brought together some of the most respected forecasting experts in the world with 334 registered attendees from 35 states, five countries and 120 different business, government, and academic organizations. SAS hosted this event - the world's largest forecasting conference of the year - to help organizations analyze and streamline their forecasting processes, and improve forecasting results.

"F2006 improved attendees' critical eye for both the statistical and the process side of forecasting," said Mike Gilliland, product marketing manager at SAS. "The conference take-always were powerful. Attendees learned which techniques and processes work best and returned to their offices with new ideas for more efficiently achieving objectives."

Networking opportunities abounded for participants, who included analysts, managers, directors, and business executives as well as Ph.D. scientists and researchers. Practitioners appreciated exposure to academic theory and the practical examples and applications of the latest research. Academics became more familiar with the real-life issues facing today's forecasting practitioners.

"The conference provided broad opportunities for idea-sharing," added Gilliland. "For example, the call center staffing solution at a financial services institution could be applied directly to an airline's reservation center, or a retailer's store staffing problem. The new product forecasting approach used at Warner Home Video can be tried by apparel or automotive manufacturers, electronics retailers, or government agencies."

Forecasting experts led discussions of the latest software and statistical techniques, although many sessions were geared to people who work in non-technical areas and focused on the forecasting process.

Among the outstanding presentations, Paul Goodwin, Ph.D., from the University of Bath (UK) delivered a keynote address on "Combining Management Judgment with Statistical Forecasts for Improved Accuracy." He described how statistical methods and expert management judgment can bring complementary benefits to the forecasting process. However, such judgment can be subject to both inconsistencies and biases. He then demonstrated a range of methods designed to allow judgment to play an effective role when used in combination with statistical forecasts.

Sven Crone, Lancaster University (UK) spoke about the best ways to incorporate the effects of external events into demand forecasts. He noted that management judgment must play a major role when the event history has not been properly recorded or the expected future event is not thought to be similar to those seen in the past. He concluded with a discussion of software enhancements that could help company forecasters improve their estimates of the impact of events.

The F2006 exhibit hall was full and busy. IBM and SAS staffed a unique exhibit where attendees took a "test drive" of SAS Forecast Server on an IBM p5 550 server. Attendees were invited to send their company data in advance of the conference and then view it running through SAS Forecast Server. The test drive enabled attendees to observe the functionality and speed of the SAS software and IBM hardware combination, and it let them assess the level of forecast accuracy they were likely to achieve.

"The Forecast Sever test drive was a big hit," said Jim Ferris, who leads the SAS Forecasting Practice. "We conducted test drives with 26 attendees - many who were from large global corporations. Attendees appreciated the chance for hands-on use of the solution accompanied by those with technical and business expertise. A major retailer sought me out as he left the test drive to say, 'I've never seen anything like this at a conference ... it is exactly what I needed to see.' Based on attendee response such as this, SAS and IBM plan to offer this exhibit in the future."

Both major forecasting professional organizations - the Institute of Business Forecasting and the International Institute of Forecasters - hosted popular exhibits at the conference. Attendees could view each organization's publications, and learn about the conferences, training and certification programs they offer.

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