Nick Street and faculty
September 16, 2016
Alison Damast

Information systems was once a relatively sleepy undergraduate major at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, despite being taught by a sophisticated team of professors with expertise in applied mathematics, computer science and engineering. That all changed a few years ago when Nick Street, the chair of the school’s management sciences department, and his colleagues realized they were sitting on top of a huge untapped opportunity.

They were already experts at teaching students how to mine data to make business decisions, and companies were increasingly telling them they wanted undergraduate students with expertise in this hot area. Street responded by adding a new track in business analytics to the major in 2013, offering students the chance to graduate with a Business Analytics and Information Systems degree.

“This whole big data thing is relatively new, and everyone is recognizing the value of all this data we’ve all been collecting,” Street says. “We saw this as a coming trend. You can’t go anywhere without having someone say ‘big data’ these days. The hype has been fairly ridiculous.”

Mit Sloan, Maryland's Smith & Ohio State's Fisher into the Game

The addition of the business analytics track has turned out to be a smart strategic move for the school. In the first year, about 70 students signed up for the revamped major, and enrollment has nearly quadrupled three years later. Even more encouraging, the placement rate for students who graduated from the program has been 100% or close to 100% every year for the last three years.

“There are a lot of good entry-level positions out there, and there is a need for this talent,” Street says. “Nobody was filling it, at least not in our markets. Companies are snatching up our students.”

Over the last few years, a bevvy of programs in business analytics and data analytics have popped up at top business schools across the country, driven by the rise of big data and a growing need for people with deep expertise in crunching the massive amount of information generated today by companies. Now undergraduate business programs are starting to follow suit, with a growing number of them offering majors and minors in the topic. MIT Sloan revamped its undergraduate curriculum last fall to include a new major in business analytics, and other undergraduate business schools such as Tippie, the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business and Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business are introducing majors, co-majors or minors in the subjects.

Corporate Recruiters are Clamoring for Students with this Expertise

The schools are bringing the subject into undergraduate classrooms at a time when the market is clamoring for students with expertise in this area. More and more companies are collecting large amounts of data because storage is relatively cheap, and they are increasingly reliant on business analytics to gain an edge over their competitors or to simply remain afloat in the market.

According to a study by McKinsey & Company, the U.S. could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with “deep analytical skills” by 2018 as well a 1.5 million shortage in managers and analysts who know how to use big data effectively.  Another study by the International Data Corporation, a market research, analysis and advisory firm, estimates that by 2018 there will be a need in the market for 181,000 people with deep analytical skills, and five times that many positions requiring skills in data management and interpretation skills.

Undergraduate business schools are starting to respond to this marketplace need. For example, Ohio State’s Fisher College introduced a minor in business analytics for the first time this year, hoping to expose students to the subject through a fast five-course sequence intended to train students how to do data analysis through the lens of R, the leading programming language in statistics and data science.

'There is Great Demand in the Marketplace'

“We’re doing it for the same reason everyone is doing it, because there is great demand in the marketplace,” explains Greg Allenby, a professor of marketing and statistics at Fisher. “What’s distinctive about our program is we’re making it all R-based, which we believe employers will ask for. It’s really the future in statistics, so we’re hoping this will get students up and running for jobs in industry.”

At MIT, the new major in business analytics for undergraduates comes at a time when the school is looking to make its curriculum more market relevant and build on MIT’s longstanding quantitative strengths. MIT’s Jake Cohen, associate dean for undergraduate and master’s programs, says he believes that many of the school’s management and engineering students will be interested in doing a double major in the subject.

“Companies are generating an exponential amount of data and they need people to take all this data from clients and customers or consumers and generate insight,” Cohen adds from an interview withPoets&Quants last spring. “This is a field we really see as emerging and we want to be on the forefront of it.”

How to Use Data Analytics to Optimize a Fantasy Football Draft

Indeed, students are eager to get their hands wrapped around ways to approach the complex questions that businesses are facing today. Those who study big data in a classroom learn how to manipulate data using advanced techniques such as data mining, optimization and simulation modeling, and database design and management.

At Tippie, they learn the subject by studying real-life examples, such as how to do use data analytics to optimize a Fantasy Football draft or hit the most PokeStops when playing the Pokémon game, Street says. They also study more serious business problems, from how hospitals can reduce their readmission rates to predicting the type of behaviors that would increase the odds of donors willing to contribute to a particular nonprofit.

Tippie’s major has attracted students such as Ling Tong, a senior at the school majoring in mathematics and business analytics and information systems. As a freshman, she entered the program intending to major in accounting, with the goal of getting her CPA.  But Tong soon changed her mind when she learned that the school offered a new major that would allow her to study big data. “Business analytics is much, much more interesting,” believes Tong, who plans to study the topic in graduate school next year and eventually go back to China to work in the field.

A Win-Win for Businesses and its Customers

She’s put her recently honed data analysis skills to good use, participating in a business competition last spring sponsored by Syngenta, an agricultural biotechnology firm, and INFORMS, a professional society for practitioners of information-systems management. She was part of a team from the Tippie School that used data analytics to develop a model to predict which varieties of seeds farmers should plant to maximize their yields. Her team took third place in the Syngenta Crop Challenge, an important validation of the skills she’s learned in her classes, she says.

“When you can use data to help the business delver more value to the customer, that’s a win-win for both sides,” she said.

Expect explosive growth in the topic as more business schools jump on the bandwagon with Tippie, MIT, Maryland, and Ohio State. This is not a trend that is anywhere near its peak.