Harnessing the Power of Data: MBA Programs in Business Analytics

From consulting firms to tech companies, big data is big business

From marketing managers seeking precise statistics about customers to financial analysts calculating investment decisions, data is a fundamental part of business. But as the amount of data available keeps increasing sharply each year, many businesses don't have the capability or understanding to keep up.

“Simply put, companies need to make better strategic decisions, and they need to make the decisions quickly in an ever-evolving environment,” according to Ron Nordone, assistant dean of graduate programs at Drexel University's Lebow College of Business.

Drexel Lebow is one of a handful of business schools that have recently started offering MBA concentrations in business analytics; others include NYU, Southern Methodist, Notre Dame, Indiana, Purdue, Rutgers, and the University of Georgia.

At first, it may seem like an ultra-niche aspect of business, but these new concentrations have been prompted by an increasing number of data-related jobs. Drexel – Lebow's business analytics concentration was launched about two years ago after the school extensively researched employers who were demanding people with these skills.

“We consistently heard that companies need employees who can synthesize data, and people who can help their companies improve their decision-making,” according to Ron Nordone.

An MBA program focused in business analytics generally covers two main topics: data collection tools (like computer software or spreadsheets) and quantitative techniques (such as data modeling.) For example, one course might give an overview of data mining, while another might cover business planning based on that data.

Nordone notes that although Drexel's MBA concentration is heavy on the hard skills, it holds a growing appeal for students with non-technical backgrounds.

“When we first launched the program, we thought the program would appeal primarily to students whose current job or career path revolved around data,” he notes, “however, we’re hearing from more students who do not have a background but need to develop in this area.”

Amit Basu would agree. He chairs the Information Technology and Operations Management department at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, which launched an MBA concentration in business analytics in the fall of 2011.

“You certainly get a fair number of people who have technical backgrounds – they might have a background in technology consulting, or computer science,” says Basu. “But you also get folks who see themselves going into more sophisticated marketing or business development, where they see that some of the more analytical techniques are useful.”

The broad appeal of these concentrations is rooted in the fact that the need to analyze data exists in a wide range of industries and functional areas. Many students find that pairing a concentration in analytics with another in their chosen industry or functional area provides much-needed perspective.

“Analytics is one of those concentrations that you could combine with just about anything,” Basu says, and notes that students who pursue SMU's business analytics concentration regularly combine it with a second concentration in an area like marketing, finance, or consulting.

At Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, MBA students officially declare one concentration track, but can also pursue a second concentration unofficially. About 30 percent of MBA students choose business analytics as a second concentration, according to Megan Stiphany, director of MBA student services at Mendoza.

The concentration track “allows students to harness the power behind those numbers and really make an impact,” says Stiphany. 

These skills clearly appeal to hiring companies across many sectors. Stiphany notes that recent Notre Dame graduates who have pursued Mendoza's concentration in business analytics have landed in diverse roles, including at tech companies like IBM and consulting firms like Deloitte.

The need for people in these kinds of roles continues to grow in other areas, as well. SMU's Amit Basu sees emerging opportunities in the healthcare, retail, and travel industries, among others.

According to Basu, “everyone is looking for people who have these skill bases.”

Photo: "cmd.exe" by *n3wjack's world in pixels / Flickr (cropped and rotated)

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