Academe responds to Big Data wave

Academic programs in information systems are in a strong position to train the workforce that will assume the challenge of understanding and managing Big Data. That’s according to a recently released report by a special panel of the Association for Information Systems that included Department of Information Systems professors.

February 24, 2014 – Academic programs in information systems are in a strong position to train the workforce that will assume the challenge of understanding and managing Big Data, according to a recently released report by a special panel of the Association for Information Systems, the leading organization of business analytics professionals worldwide.

But these programs will have to adjust curricula frequently and also hire and train faculty to meet the demands of a rapidly changing field, according to the report of the 10-member group, which included two members of the W. P. Carey School’s Information Systems faculty.

“We will need to ramp up programs to provide the business analytics and business intelligence skills that industry will need to manage and analyze Big Data,” said Uday Kulkarni, co-director of the business analytics master’s program at the W. P. Carey School and a member of the group that prepared the report. “Academic programs are going to have to mobilize to meet the demand.”

In preparing its analysis and recommendations, the panel surveyed almost 500 industry professionals, as well as more than 300 university faculty and 600 students.

“This is probably the best snapshot we have had on the match between academics and industry regarding Big Data,” said Michael Goul, chairman of the Department of Information Systems and a member of the group that prepared the report.

Goul said that the number of programs in business analytics offered by academic institutions around the world has grown rapidly in the past two years, but many more will be needed.

“We are seeing more and more universities add analytics courses, either as electives or as dedicated programs,” Goul said. “Some of these programs are coming out of engineering. Some are coming out of business schools. Some are a combination. It is advancing very quickly.”

Growing programs, growing demand

Organizations of all kinds face a major challenge in managing the explosion of data that has occurred in recent years. Advances in computers, communications, storage and related fields have produced the phenomenon of Big Data, which the McKinsey Global Institute defines as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze.”

Although Big Data touches many academic spheres, it has fallen largely to business schools to develop the talent needed to manage big data and use it effectively inside organizations. Information systems departments in business schools often oversee the business analytics and business intelligence programs that have the task of preparing the next generation of leaders in the field.

In December 2012, the Association for Information Systems organized a Business Intelligence Congress to assess academia’s response to the challenge of Big Data. Using the results of a survey of industry and academia, a 10-person panel of the congress prepared a report, which was published in January 2014.

“It took a while to publish our findings, and it became clear in the meantime that many of our predictions about changes in the field have come true,” Goul said.

One major finding of the panel is that the number and depth of business intelligence and business analytics programs have increased dramatically between 2010 and 2012. In two years, the number of undergraduate degree programs increased from three to 47.

“The growth in programs was almost mind-blowing to those of us on the panel,” Kulkarni said. “Academia is responding as quickly as it can.”

He noted that it takes time to create the resources needed to teach in the programs. “One needs faculty with advanced degrees and real-world experiences in analytics. This is a problem that is not easily solved,” Kulkarni said. “To get a PhD takes five years.”

The surge in programs appeared to align well with the needs of businesses. Over 75 percent of employers surveyed said they preferred to hire students with formal business analytics degrees or majors.

The panel identified a problem with the growth of these academic programs: a lack of guidelines and model curricula. The report states: “BI/BA course content continues to represent different things to different people, as evidenced by the myriad BI/BA courses offered … 11 unique disciplines commonly teach these courses, ranging from IS and statistics to marketing and finance.”

The report found that professors have been increasing their use of outside teaching resources, including tutorials and case studies, some of which are supplied by businesses that have partnered with academia. The report recommends that academics and those in industry work together to develop teaching resources that are relevant to the real world but also tailored for use by students in an academic setting.

Skills in demand

Students who are in business analytics programs today have bright prospects for future employment. Goul recently typed in the words “data analyst” into the search box of a popular tech job board and got 7,687 listings. There were 321 postings for data scientist.

The survey by the congress found that 89 percent of employers agreed that their need for recruits with business analytics skills would increase in the future. However, skills in handling data are not all that employers are looking for according to the survey. The most important skill identified by employers was an ability to communicate.

“Even if you can do all of the analytics and get all of the numbers right, it means nothing unless you can communicate these results and their implications to the people it matters to,” Goul said.

Employers surveyed also said they want students to have practical experience. “Consistently, employers identified internships, report and dashboard development experiences and hands-on classroom practicums as the most important student experiences relevant to the hiring process,” the report states.

Forging partnerships with industry is key for academic programs looking to deliver real-world experiences to students, according to Goul. He noted that the Information Systems Department frequently looks for guidance from its advisory board, which is made up of industry representatives.

New degrees for a growing field

The W. P. Carey School has been a leader in developing programs to train the future analysts and managers of Big Data. In 2013, the school became one of the first in the country to offer a Master of Science degree in Business Analytics. There are now 50 students in the one-year program, which will graduate its first class this spring.

The school’s Information Systems and Supply Chain Management Departments developed the program jointly.

Kulkarni said that with the rapid changes in the field, there already is a need to reassess the curriculum. “I think we have a great curriculum that we designed one year ago, but it already seems we need to make changes. We need to include some new marketing content in our curriculum.”

The program also is set for a big expansion in enrollment in its second year. Kulkarni said the numbers in the on-campus program would increase to over a hundred. Also slated to be added are one or more online sections in the 2014-15 academic year.

“Our approach was to make sure we could teach it well on the ground before we developed the online material,” Goul said.

Increasing distance-learning opportunities was one of the recommendations to come out of the recent report of the Association for Information Systems panel.

“This will spread our reach to a population that is not just local but national and international,” Kulkarni said of the online Business Analytics master’s program at the W. P. Carey School.

In the 2014-2015 academic year, the school for the first time will offer a bachelor’s degree in business analytics. Students graduating from this on-campus program will learn not only how to analyze large data sets, but they also will gain an understanding of how data can be used in a business setting, according to Goul.

Kulkarni said the W. P. Carey School is trying to respond to the demand for business analytics programs but is charting growth carefully.

“The increase in demand is dramatic, but we have to be very strategic about how we respond,” he said. “We don’t want to burn ourselves by growing too fast. We are creating our expertise first, then we see how we are doing and then we grow.”