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Big Data, Big Needs

As businesses strive to become more profitable, productive, and competitive, the last few decades have seen a growing need to collect, organize, and analyze data. The amount of data a company has can be so large that it is called “big data” because of its size and difficulty in processing with many companies’ current database management tools.

“From a technology perspective, we have seen computer processing power and storage capacity increasing exponentially,” says Gautam Pant, assistant professor of management sciences in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. “Companies can now track data at a scale that is unprecedented.”

Firms can now “sense interactions,” he says, “and that translates into huge amounts of data. It’s not just web interactions, but contacts between people who are moving the goods, the good themselves moving between warehouse to a store.”

Years ago, when data was scarce, “companies made inferences and conjectures,” says Jeff Ohlmann, associate professor and Huneke Research Fellow in management sciences. “Now we have the opposite problem. Companies are trying to figure out what part of this huge amount of data is actually relevant.”

No matter where the data comes from—radio-frequency identification tags that track products to website “click-throughs”—employees who can manage and analyze the data and who can make decisions based on data analysis are highly sought after.

To answer the call for more graduates with these skills, the Tippie College of Business has modified its undergraduate management information systems major to create a business analytics and information systems major, which will be offered starting next fall.

Students will choose from one of two tracks: business analytics or information systems. Business analytics focuses on the use of data to analyze and improve business processes, including data mining, supply chain management, simulation, and optimization. The information systems track is for students who want to learn about the design and management of information technology that collects, organizes, and secures the data. Taking an appropriate combination of course work and a capstone project could also earn the student a Lean/Six Sigma certification.

Whichever track the student chooses, there are skills in the other track that are important to know, too, Ohlmann says, so the major includes some common course work that all students will take. Several core courses include Operations Management and Database Management.

“If I chose a business analytics track emphasis, I would still want to know how to use databases and how to design and develop those, because that’s where I will likely be accessing my information,” Ohlmann says. “With an information systems track emphasis, I would want the knowledge of how the data will be used by others in the company so we can communicate with each other.”

In addition, a new required course for all students in this major is Business Process Analysis, which focuses on process improvement and data modeling.

“Every business is composed of steps or processes,” Ohlmann says, “and all employees are involved in that process. If you can make that process better and add more value, then you are going to be an asset to the company.”

The timing is also right for the Tippie College to offer the major because there’s a critical mass of management sciences faculty members who have the expertise to teach the course work. In addition to 11 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, the department recently hired Pant and Kang Zhao, whose strengths match well with the department’s needs. Plus, the department hopes to hire one more faculty member before next fall. The department also hires lecturers and adjunct and visiting faculty members to teach some of its courses.

Although there have been some changes and additions to the curriculum, Pant and Ohlmann stress that students enrolled in the current management information sciences major will still be able to graduate under the program they started, and students in other Tippie majors will be able to take the new courses as well.

“We’ve given the major a facelift, added some new courses that current majors can take now, and they’ll finish their studies with an MIS major but have the benefit of the new knowledge,” Ohlmann says. “We’ve done our own process improvement, if you will."

While students are busy studying, corporations are anxiously awaiting the next group of graduates, says Jason Cooper, vice president of business analytics at Wellmark.

“This new major could produce a very relevant talent pool for Wellmark’s Business Analytics department,” he says. “We are involved in projects that span data governance, client reporting, data mining, predictive modeling, program evaluations, enterprise data warehouse and marts, big data and clickstream considerations, and analytic consulting.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2012-13 issue of Tippie Magazine.

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