What insights can organizations glean from the mind-boggling quantities of data produced by users of information technology, and what are the best technological tools and analytical methods for gathering, assessing and making sense of that data? Moreover, what actions should organizations take once they’ve become privy to the data’s secrets?
It’s precisely such questions that a new center at the University of Virginia plans to address with world-class academic rigor, said Ahmed Abbasi, a professor of information technology at U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, who directs the school’s new Center for Business Analytics.
“Successfully dealing with the complexities of business analytics requires a deep understanding not only of technical and quantitative analysis, but also of the workings of business,” Abbasi said. “In establishing the CBA, our mission is to bring together the best of industry and academic expertise – and to establish McIntire as a leader in business analytics education, research and professional innovation.”
Critical to the center’s mission are its corporate board members, which include Amazon Web Services, Deloitte, Kate Spade, Capital One, Hilton Worldwide, McKinsey & Company, comScore, IBM and The Teaching Company. Representing some of the world’s leading consumers, producers and technological enablers of analytics, each brings invaluable real-world perspective, insight and expertise, Abbasi said.
“Business analytics is absolutely industry-driven,” Abbasi said, noting the explosion of corporate interest in examining data for competitive advantage-producing insights. “By partnering with some of the world’s leading corporations, we’re able to ensure that McIntire students and faculty remain absolutely current with businesses’ analytics-related needs, challenges and opportunities, as well as with key analytics technologies and methods.”
McIntire Senior Associate Dean Rick Netemeyer, who has been actively involved in the design and development of the center, said that U.Va.’s new Data Science Institute will likely also prove to be a superb partner. “DSI’s program is largely focused on the technical skills required for dealing with big data,” Netemeyer said. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to engage in a sort of exchange program, in which a small number of our students have the opportunity to take some of DSI’s specialized technical courses, and a small number of their students have a chance to take some of our more business-oriented courses.”
Such a complement of coursework, Abbasi said, should lead to the production of highly marketable graduates: According to a recent McKinsey report, the United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 workers trained in analytics, not to mention some 1.5 million managers with the business know-how necessary to analyze and then act upon data-related insights.
“This is a massive trend,” Abbasi said, noting that companies indicate a particular interest in hiring workers with real-world business knowledge, hands-on experience, familiarity with current software tools, and the communication and people skills necessary to render analytics-based insights actionable. “If you’re going to be competitive in the higher education environment, business analytics is something you’ve got to do.”
The Center for Business Analytics will serve as the organizational hub for six primary analytics-related initiatives: organizing high-level, high-relevance workshops and colloquia, including an annual symposium; supporting a student-run analytics club for the numerous students interested in enriching their knowledge of analytics through extension activities such as case competitions; securing student-enrichment opportunities, such as access to industry workshops and conferences, and establishing an independent study-style scholars program for the keenest analytics students; engaging in industry-oriented predictive analytics research; continuing to engage in community outreach by working on projects for local small businesses and nonprofits; and continuing to enhance and expand McIntire’s offerings in business analytics coursework, both through its undergraduate-level business analytics track and through similar coursework for M.S. in Commerce students.
“The center is the glue that holds it all together,” Abbasi said. “It’s a place where everybody – students, faculty and our industry partners – can not only come together, but also see how all of these efforts really work together.”
Abbasi notes that while many of the center’s initiatives are new, McIntire’s analytics coursework is already firmly established: Some 20 percent of the school’s fourth-year students are enrolled in its three-year-old, 12-credit-hour business analytics track, and 60 percent of M.S. in Commerce students take the program’s analytics coursework. A new M.S. in Commerce business analytics track is in the works.
The industry-integrative approach has already proved to be a pedagogical win-win, Netemeyer said. In recent graduate and undergraduate classes, Kate Spade provided students with massive amounts of customer data, along with a host of marketing issues they wanted addressed, based on the data. Representatives from McKinsey then spoke to the students about the cutting-edge analytical methods they use to approach such problems, followed by representatives from IBM, who offered tutorials on how to use the most sophisticated technologies to do so.
“The students are getting first-rate instruction, along with real-world industry and technological insight,” Netemeyer said. “Our corporate partners, in turn, have the opportunity to gain really fresh insights from – and possibly recruit – these incredibly bright, creative, well-trained young people.”
Sarah Payne, a 2005 McIntire graduate who is manager of financial planning and analysis and investor relations at Kate Spade, said, “Not only have I enjoyed engaging the students as they tackle my team’s challenges and opportunities, but I am also thrilled with the quality of the students’ recommendations. As industries focus more and more on leveraging big data, the CBA will help McIntire and its corporate partners stay ahead of the curve.”