Data Analytics Gains Prominence in MBA Programs

MBA graduates who can design and implement data strategy and communicate and manage the technical side have an edge in the job market

Data analytics has been steadily gaining prominence in MBA degrees for some years now, a reflection of skills needs in the labor market, but the number of MBA courses on analytics is reaching a tipping point, according to the MBA Roundtable, a global association of business schools. It surveyed 104 schools last year and found 61 percent were planning major upgrades to the curriculum in the next five years, with the main focus being on analytics.

It has become increasingly clear over the last decade that every business needs to have a data strategy to compete. This means that they need to hire data engineers, data scientists, data architects and other technical staff, of course, but they also need a complementary understanding of data on the business side. This presents a huge opportunity for MBA graduates with the right skills, say business schools.

“MBAs that understand data well enough to design and implement data strategy but also to communicate and manage the technical side have a profound advantage in the job market,” says Gregory La Blanc, lecturer in finance, strategy and law at Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.

Business schools don’t provide the kind of comprehensive technical education that you can get in an engineering, computer science, or data science program. But MBA schools insist they can do a great job of providing enough technical background to understand the context and the bigger picture. “MBAs have always been generalists, but the content of their portfolio of general skills needs to continually evolve,” says La Blanc.  

Virtually every job in today’s labor market benefits from some level of analytical skills, say schools, whether it’s in marketing, finance, operations, human resources or any other function. However, firms have a shortage of skilled employees to address the change towards digital business models, so the demand for MBA courses is constantly growing.

Jan Hohberger, associate dean for Esade Business School’s full-time MBA, says that data analytics is changing from a specific skill to something which is generally expected of MBA job candidates: “The demand is clearly growing globally since 2018.”

The data analytics modules at Esade in Barcelona focus on the application of these tools to create and capture economic value. “MBAs do not need necessarily become technical experts, but have to understand tools and methods to see their potential for the business area, and are able to work with experts,” says Hohberger.

Sudipta Dasmohapatra, professor of practice at Georgetown McDonough School of Business in Washington DC, agrees that demand for this understanding and ability is high and is growing. “Today, technology has made it possible for organizations to collect and store extremely large datasets,” she says. “These are being recognized as valuable assets with the capability to drive strategic business decision-making and propel business growth.”

Demand for analytics-minded MBA grads on the rise

As technology and tools continue to evolve, organizations are looking for professionals who can work with data, analyze it, and draw insights from hidden trends, associations and predictions.

To cater to this demand, Georgetown’s MBA program has added new courses on data analytics. “The focus is primarily to understand sources of data and how the analytics concepts, techniques, and tools can be applied in practice across various business functions,” says Dasmohapatra.

“Students learn to strategically think about business problems, organize and structure data around the business problem, manage data, create visualizations and reports, create analytical models, and identify strategies for optimizing business outcomes,” she adds.

While these techniques have been used for decades in finance, operations, and marketing, the big game changer over the last 15 years has been the lower cost and accessibility of data, algorithms, and computing power. “As a result, big data has penetrated all industries and has become a key competitive factor,” says Willem-Jan van Hoeve, professor of operations research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Business analytics relies on techniques from data science, such as statistics, optimization, and machine learning, to extract information from data and convert this into knowledge.  However, the main value for industry comes from understanding the business opportunities for this technology.

“MBA students should therefore have a deep enough understanding of the technology to recognize where and how data science can be applied in practice,” says van Hoeve. “And students should learn how to communicate and lead teams to implement solutions that are driven by analytics and data science.”

Business analytics experts can better identify business opportunities, and function as a bridge between technical support teams and upper management. “Business analytics is a key tool for strategic decision-making, and these techniques therefore continue to be useful as a foundation while people develop their careers,” van Hoeve concludes.

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