How Business Schools Are Teaching Big Data Analytics

Big data analytics has become a key part of any leading business school's curriculum

Big data analytics is now an essential management skill. According to a forecast by McKinsey & Company, the management consultancy, the US will this year experience a shortage of 1.5 million managers and analysts who can use big data to make effective decisions.

The concept has become a key part of the leading business school’s curriculum, such as London’s Imperial College Business School, which takes a novel approach to data science education.

The school launched a Data Observatory which helps data scientists and consumers of data science visualize and communicate their findings, which propels research. “The Data Observatory is thus a venue for both making and sharing discoveries,” says Mark Kennedy, director of Imperial Business Analytics, which aims to bring data science research closer to business.

Visually, the Observatory takes the form of a digital tapestry of 64 screens, offering 313-degree views. Imperial believes it’s the biggest in Europe.

Full-time MBA students have joined Data Sparks, Imperial’s big data consultancy projects, many of which have led to visualizations in the Observatory. The students use data from companies, not-for-profits, or government agencies to work on difficult but practical problems. They work alongside students from business analytics courses and, increasingly, other parts of Imperial College, such as engineering, computing, and medicine.

Last year, the MBA projects were focused on law, consulting, and healthcare. One example was a project showing the spread of contagious diseases around the world, which was able to answer the question: “What country’s citizens are most likely to be involved in the global spread of contagious disease?”

Mark says: “The analysis showed how and why diseases can spread, thus suggesting ways to detect and forestall potential epidemics.”

Imperial also runs a new short course called ‘data artistry’, which helps people know not only when they are looking at patterns that matter, but also how to put across their findings in a way that moves people. “Profound findings are of no use if nobody can understand them,” says Mark.

The ability to both understand, communicate, and act upon such findings is now a coveted skill in an economy that is becoming increasingly digitized.

“Data has entered into every industry and business function, and is now an important factor of production, sales and marketing, HR, supply chain, and finance,” says Francesco Daveri, MBA director at the SDA Bocconi School of Management. “The use of big data will become a base for competition and growth for every firm.”

The Italian business school has courses in big data marketing, the programming language Python, and digital business transformation.

Francesco says SQL, another coding language, is necessary for analytics roles, and so is an understanding of Google Analytics. “It is essential for those looking for a job in finance and marketing to be at least conversant with such techniques,” he says.

The most technical parts of these courses are non-compulsory. More important than understanding the technicality of the analytical tools is the ability to effectively communicate with the people using them.

Francesco says: “We cultivate diversity in educational backgrounds. When it comes to data analytics in general, those coming from law and humanities often face some disadvantage [as they are often unfamiliar with business functions]. But those who want to make big data analysis a part of their toolkit, adapt.”

Examples of big data-related jobs secured by his MBAs include with high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Farfetch, Amazon, and the bank JPMorgan, working on its machine learning strategy.   

When asked which employers are looking managers with a big data skillset, Imperial’s Mark simply said: “Who isn’t?”

He says MBA students with these skills are highly sought after by organizations in finance, consulting, banking, energy, healthcare, and technology.


But it’s not just MBA programs tapping into the big data boom. At the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, a STEM-designated Master of Science in Business Analytics sees students dedicate 16 months to in-depth data analytics training.

Smith will offer a fully-online format of the program from January 2019. Judy Frels, assistant dean of online programs at Smith, says the decision is a response to employer demand. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’ll be 96,000 more management-level analyst jobs created by 2026.

“Employers continue to tell us about a skills gap in the workforce: they need more people who have sophisticated data management, modeling and analytical skills,” says Judy. “The program will prepare students to be proficient as both strategists and data analysts.

“Students get hands-on, in-depth training on the latest tools and methods for dealing with large, messy, complex datasets. As we’re teaching them each tool, we include practice with increasingly ‘real’ sets of data, where the data becomes more and more like what they would encounter in the real world. 

“We [also] give them tools for data handling and database management and then progress to teach tools that are descriptive, prescriptive and predictive,” she continues. “In doing so, our students come out with skills that help companies understand where they are, where they should go, and where they can go if they make the right decisions.”

What does the MS in Business Analytics offer students that an MBA does not?

“It’s for someone who wants to go deep in the field of analysis and wants to apply those skills to problems found in business,” Judy explains.

“An MBA is a much broader degree, really for someone who wants to move up the management ranks in a business, whereas an MS degree is for someone, often earlier in their career, still looking to specialize in understanding what the data can tell them. The two degrees are great complements.”

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