Big Data, Big Ideas

McIntire’s new Center for Business Analytics brings world-class academic rigor to the brave new world of analytics.

What insights can organizations glean from the mind-boggling quantities of data produced by users of information technology? What are the best technological tools and analytical methods for gathering, assessing, and making sense of that data? Moreover, what actions should organizations take, once they are privy to the data’s secrets, and, critically, how can McIntire students best prepare to lead such actions?

McIntire Faculty

McIntire Business Analytics faculty (left to right) Tony Baglioni,
Rick Netemeyer, Ahmed Abbasi, Jingjing Li, Trey Maxham.

Big data is the stuff of big questions, big opportunities, and—at McIntire—big plans: With the fall 2014 launch of its comprehensive new Center for Business Analytics (CBA), the School established an ambitious set of goals. ”Our mission is to bring together the best of industry and academic expertise—and to establish McIntire not only as an outstanding contributor to analytics research and professional innovation, but, fundamentally, as a leader in business analytics education,” says McIntire IT Professor and Center Director Ahmed Abbasi.

Comprehensive Plans

Given the breathtaking complexities and dynamism of business analytics—a field in which success demands a deep, integrative understanding not only of technical and quantitative analysis, but also of the workings of business—achieving those goals requires an approach that’s at once multifaceted and carefully coordinated. Accordingly, the new Center will serve as the hub for six essential and complementary analytics-related initiatives:

  • Continuing to enhance and expand McIntire’s offerings in business analytics coursework, both through its undergraduate-level Business Analytics Track and through similar coursework for M.S. in Commerce students
  • Engaging in industry-oriented predictive analytics research
  • Organizing high-level, high-relevance workshops and colloquia, including an annual symposium
  • Supporting a student-run analytics club for the numerous students interested in enriching their knowledge of analytics through extension activities such as case competitions
  • Securing student-enrichment opportunities, such as access to industry workshops and conferences, and establishing an independent study-style scholars program for the keenest analytics students
  • Continuing to engage in community outreach by working on projects for local small businesses and nonprofits

“The Center is where it all comes together,” says Abbasi, stressing the fact that integrated, cutting-edge offerings in analytics have become a critical component of a top-tier business education. “It’s a place where everybody—students, faculty, our corporate partners—can not only come together, but also see how all of these efforts really work to strengthen and complement one another.”

Outside Insights

Indispensable to the CBA are its outstanding corporate partners, including, currently, Amazon Web Services; Capital One; CapTech; comScore; Deloitte; Hilton Worldwide; IBM; Kate Spade; McKinsey & Company; and TheGreatCourses.com. Representing some of the world’s leading consumers, producers, and technological enablers of analytics, each partner brings invaluable real-world perspective, insight, and expertise both to the classroom and to IT faculty members’ burgeoning analytics research output. In addition, partners offer advice with regard to the Center’s strategic direction; help students gain access to specialized industry conferences and events; provide guidance and funding for those students interested in undertaking additional high- level projects in analytics; and supply the requisite expertise, training, and technology to students working to help local and nonprofit organizations find analytics-related business solutions.

“Business analytics is industry-driven,” Abbasi explains, noting the explosion of corporate interest in examining data for competitive advantage-producing insights. “By partnering with some of the world’s leading corporations, we’re able to ensure that McIntire students and faculty remain absolutely current with businesses’ analytics-related needs, challenges, and opportunities, as well as with key analytics technologies and methods.”

Classmates

Indeed, says Abbasi, corporate partners’ contributions to the School’s analytics curriculum highlight the fundamentally important role they play in ensuring that students are superbly prepared to meet real-world business analytics challenges. In recent graduate and undergraduate classes, for instance, Kate Spade’s executives provided students with massive amounts of customer data, along with a host of marketing issues they wanted addressed. Representatives from McKinsey then spoke to the students about the cutting-edge analytical methods they use to approach such problems, followed by representatives from IBM, who offered tutorials on how to use the most sophisticated technologies to do so.

Similarly, executives from premier educational materials marketer TheGreatCourses.com this fall presented fourth- year analytics students with several years of company- warehoused consumer data, simultaneously challenging them with a high-importance, real-world sleuthing project and providing them with an unparalleled learning opportunity. The project? To unearth, over the course of the semester, predictors of critically important repeat-purchase behavior.

“If meaningful results come out of the students’ work, we will absolutely figure out how to apply those results to achieve positive business outcomes,” says Kevin LeFew (Engineering ’89), the company’s Senior Vice President for Technology Services. “Working toward that kind of real- world goal—with all the analytics, digital marketing, and communication challenges it involves—is an invaluable experience for the students.” Moreover, LeFew points out, the benefits of partnership are mutual. “The novel solutions and thought processes the students offer us are not only inspiring, but also potentially extremely valuable,” he says.

McIntire Marketing Professor and Senior Associate Dean Rick Netemeyer, who has been actively involved in the design and development of the CBA, puts it this way: “The students are getting first-rate instruction, along with real-world industry and technological insight. Our corporate partners, in turn, have the opportunity to gain really fresh insights from—and possibly recruit—these incredibly bright, creative, well-trained young people.”

The World Awaits

Abbasi points out that the demand for outstanding business analytics workers—those with real-world business knowledge, hands-on experience, familiarity with current software tools, and the communication and people skills necessary to render analytics-based insights actionable—can hardly be overstated: According to a recent McKinsey report, the United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 workers trained in analytics—not to mention some 1.5 million managers with the business know-how necessary to analyze and then act upon data-related insights.

“This is a massive trend,” Abbasi says. "If you want to be competitive in business education, business analytics is something you not only have to do, but you have to do thoughtfully, comprehensively, and within a learning environment that’s highly real-world oriented.”

Strong Foundation

Abbasi is quick to note that although the Center and many of its initiatives are indeed new, the School was well out in front of the business analytics trend: Some 60 percent of M.S. in Commerce students take the program’s outstanding course offerings in analytics, and the graduate program will offer a dedicated Business Analytics concentration starting in fall 2015. Meanwhile, some 20 percent of the School’s fourth-year students are enrolled in its three-year- old, 12-credit-hour Business Analytics Track, which features in-depth coursework in such critical subjects as database management systems, marketing research techniques, and business analytics.

“The Business Analytics Track does a great job of providing students with the broad, interdisciplinary knowledge and skills they’ll need, as managers, to make the most of analytics as a driver of significantly improved performance and decision making,” Abbasi says, pointing out that the curriculum has been carefully designed to ensure that students learn the fundamental research skills necessary to design, create, and analyze datasets, as well as the communication skills to render data-based insights meaningful and actionable to key audiences. “But the Center offers us a platform from which to establish ourselves—at the nexus of the academic and professional realms—as a truly world-class presence in business analytics.”

People Power
Professor Jingjing Li

Professor Jingjing Li working with McIntire students.

Critical to the Center’s efforts, in this regard, are the School’s outstanding and energetic faculty members, including Abbasi, Netemeyer, and Marketing Professors Trey Maxham and Tony Baglioni. New to the IT team this year is ace industry-academic veteran Jingjing Li, who brings expertise in machine learning and big data analytics, as they apply to such business-critical capabilities as information extraction, search and relevance, and recommender systems. Before joining McIntire in fall 2014, Li served as an award-winning teacher at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, from which she earned her Ph.D., and as a scientist for Microsoft, where she proposed and successfully implemented large-scale machine learning solutions for a number of well-known Microsoft products, including Xbox One and Windows 8 Search Charm.

Working with fourth-year analytics students to track down key consumer insights from TheGreatCourses.com- provided data, Li made sure to impart the fundamental concepts, tools, and technologies necessary for processing and analyzing various forms of data in support of businesses’ goals. As part of the coursework, she also engaged students in a predictive analytics contest through highly regarded professional-level predictive analytics enabler kaggle.com.

“Jingjing offers not only an outstanding academic knowledge of analytics and its associated technologies, but also, critically, a deep understanding of how that knowledge can be implemented in the marketplace,” says Abbasi. “She brings an invaluable set of perspectives on data analytics—not to mention an infectious enthusiasm for it—to the classroom.”

Looking Ahead

Abbasi says Li’s breadth of experience will also make her an outstanding contributor to the numerous corporate partner- enabled research projects for which he and his McIntire colleagues are currently laying the groundwork. Proposed research topics include such business mission-critical topics as how to better understand consumer preferences; the utility of leveraging user-generated content for the early detection of adverse events; and how to best merge transactional and perceptual data within predictive analytics.

Such topics, Abbasi says, are indicative of nothing less than an analytics-enabled revolution in business. “When you look at what’s going on with business analytics today, it’s clear that a whole new world is emerging—not only in terms of commercial and marketing opportunities, but also in terms of the unique and incredibly valuable ways in which business and academia can work together to create positive and beneficial outcomes,” says Abbasi. “We want McIntire and its graduates to help lead us responsibly and thoughtfully into the future.”