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Institute of Management Accountants bestows Distinguished Member Award on Gary Cokins ORIE ’71

By: Mark Eisner

Gary Cokins, left, with emeritus IMA chair John MacaulayCokins.jpg
Gary Cokins, left, with emeritus IMA chair John Macaulay

Gary Cokins ORIE ’71 is one of the first two recipients of the Annual Distinguished Member Award recently established by The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).   The award recognizes IMA members “whose successes, exceptional achievements, dedication, and professionalism bring honor to the organization, the profession, and themselves consistent with IMA’s mission and core values,” according to the IMA.  It celebrates a career that began with an undergraduate baseball simulation and has led to contributions to the data-driven approach to management, including a forthcoming book on predictive analytics. 

Computer baseball pioneer

As an ORIE undergraduate, Cokins won his letter as a linebacker for legendary Cornell athlete (and later Hill St. Blues star) Ed Marinaro.  In his junior year Cokins took a course, Bionics and Robots, with the late professor Henry David Block, who among other things wrote computer chess games.  For the course, Cokins teamed up with classmate Peter Watzka ORIE ’71 (who led the 1971 Ivy League baseball conference in batting average), to write a computer program in COBOL and FORTRAN that simulated every at-bat for the 1969 National League season one hundred times.  The program used a random number generator to determine the outcomes of batter hits consistent with the player’s season batting average. 

“Professor Block gave us an A,” Cokins has written, “but the real pleasure was programming the code for the game.”  The computer code and course paper are now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum   in Cooperstown, NY as a pioneering contribution to the now burgeoning field of computerized sports games.  The final simulation run, produced “win-loss percentage records [that] were very similar to their actual season records,” and matched batting and pitching records for some top players, according to Cokins.   

Expert on Activity Based Costing

Cokins went on from Cornell to get an MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  In 1988, working as a management consultant with KPMG, he was trained on Activity Based Costing (ABC) by Harvard Business School Professors Robert S. Kaplan ORIE Ph.D. ’68 and Robin Cooper.  Cokins subsequently implemented ABC at many companies and wrote a few books on it, followed by books on broader topics in enterprise performance management (including Kaplan’s Balanced Scorecard).  In that way Cokins, whose career had started as a strategic planner with the Link-Belt Division of FMC and moved to positions in finance, operations management, and management consulting, “shifted from OR to managerial accounting… and hence eventually resulted in my receiving the IMA Distinguished Member Award,” he said.  

Advocate for business analytics

Cokins recently retired as an executive with SAS, a large analytics software vendor, where he started promoting business analytics and Big Data, topics closely related to OR.  “So my Cornell OR education came back to serve me,” he said. He now has an advisory firm, Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC, and is a regular contributor of articles, blog posts, podcasts and videos on the subject of business analytics to publications and web sites of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) and the Institute for International Analytics.  In one blog post, he asserts that “There are so many opportunities to apply analytics today- it’s like being a mosquito in a nudist colony.” He has also written more than 100 monthly columns for Information Management, a magazine and web site “serving the information technology and management community.”

Cokins’ latest book, coauthored with Lawrence Maisel and to be published in October, is “Predictive Business Analytics: Forward Looking Capabilities to Improve Business Performance.”   According to Kaplan, “Maisel and Cokins have provided a highly readable account of the feasibility and power of predictive analytics. Implementing the book's ideas will definitely help companies make better data-driven decisions.”  

“Predictive analytics” is a relatively new term, promoted by IBM, SAS, SAP, Microsoft and others, for “the practice of extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends,” a practice well-known to ORIE graduates (even before Cokins was at Cornell) that has been given new impetus by the huge quantity and variety of data now available.  Because it was based on baseball statistics, the simulation that Cokins and Watzka developed more than 40 years ago can be considered a pioneering use of predictive analytics.  

“Occasionally, I ask myself what legacy I want to be known for after I have passed on,” Cokins wrote before receiving the IMA award.  “Several of my options involve my business career.  But,” he continued,” having an accomplishment of mine archived in the Baseball Hall of Fame brings a smile to my face.”

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