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University of Iowa Offers New Business Analytics Major for Undergrads

Starting this fall, undergraduate students at the University of Iowa will for the first time be offered an opportunity to major in business analytics.

The university’s Tippie College of Business approved a new track to its management information systems major, essentially allowing students to choose one of two IS majors.

That new track and major—Business Analytics and Information Systems (BAIS)—is designed to teach students how to manage and analyze vast amounts of data in order to improve an organization’s productivity and profitability.

“When you’re collecting data and trying to turn it into insight, you’re trying to improve your process and improve what you’re doing, whether that’s selling retail or managing supply chains or working in health care,” says Jeffrey Ohlmann, associate professor of management sciences at Tippie. “The BAIS major combines topics from computer science, industrial engineering, mathematics, and statistics and teaches them through the prism of business problem solving.”

Ohlmann says the idea for a business analytics major had been brewing for a few years as it became clear to Tippie faculty that big data was becoming a critical resource to enterprises, which must cope with an ongoing shortage of trained employees able to analyze data to improve their businesses.

In addition to creating an entire BAIS major, the business school also added some classes to the information systems major to teach undergrads how to “develop systems to handle large amounts of data,” Ohlmann says.

A growing number of colleges and universities offer advanced degrees for data analytics but institutions offering undergraduate degrees for data analytics are rare. Among the few are Northwestern College in Iowa, the College of Charleston, and Oxford University in England.

The Tippie College of Business has an MBA program in lean process improvement, and Ohlmann says the school has been able to “leverage the expertise of the faculty there” in designing the BAIS curriculum for undergrads.

“The ideals are the same, but we’re adapting them to a big data environment,” he says.

Ohlmann, who will teach a class in business process analysis for the BAIS major, says the new track will also offer classes in business process improvement, business intelligence and data mining, supply chain management, and optimization and simulation modeling.

Students in the BAIS track will learn about three kinds of analytics: descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive, with a heavy emphasis on the latter two. While descriptive analytics has been around for a long time, the most value for enterprises comes from using analytics to predict behavior and outcomes as well as to prescribe courses of action.

“Prescriptive analytics probably is the most sophisticated one,” Ohlmann says. “A lot of companies aren’t quite there yet.”

The goal of the BAIS track is to give undergrads marketable skills in these more advanced and valuable branches of data analytics.

Ohlmann says that rather than teach students using a specific vendor’s software—“a lot of universities end up being SAS shops,” he explains—Tippie College of business “will not be married to a particular technology or software package.”

“We’re still vetting software, trying to find tools with a low learning curve,” he says. “Our goal is to teach skills, rather than train students in a specific software platform.”

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