Issues in Education

University of Tennessee’s MSBA program designed to fill analytics talent gap in the corporate world

By Melissa Bowers and Ken Gilbert

To remain competitive, companies today must invest in analytics talent to generate insights for smarter decision-making. But without individuals equipped to both analyze data and translate their findings into big-picture insights, companies fall short of this goal. According to McKinsey Global Institute’s December 2016 report, “The Age of Analytics: Competing in a Data-Driven World,” there’s still a talent shortage in the marketplace – not of strict code writers, but of analytics professionals who can ask the right questions, identify underlying business problems, formulate and solve the right analytics models, and transform complex analytic results into actionable insights to benefit the organization.

“The biggest barriers companies face in extracting value from data and analytics are organizational,” says the McKinsey report. “Many struggle to incorporate data-driven insights into day-to-day business processes. Another challenge is attracting and retaining the right talent…[individuals] who [can] combine data savvy with industry and functional expertise.” The University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program, a finalist for the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize from INFORMS, is specifically designed to fill this talent gap.

To the best of our knowledge, in fall 2010 our college became the first business school in the nation to launch a master’s program in business analytics. The MSBA degree was inspired by our work with companies that were integrating analytics into their competitive strategies and had cited analytics as a key to their future success. We learned from our industry partners that analytics – as they defined it – involved the tools of operations research, statistics, data mining/machine learning, database technologies and computing and was not narrowly defined as “big data.”

Our industry partners were looking for analytics professionals who: (1) were well-versed in statistics, operations research, data mining/machine learning, database technologies and computer science with experience using a broad range of technical tools; (2) understood the basics of business; (3) were able to communicate clearly, both in writing and orally; and (4) possessed leadership skills. They were looking for multitalented experts who could give them the insights they needed to make smart business decisions.

Through our conversations, we realized we could not simply modify existing courses or programs to meet these criteria. We needed to start with a clean slate. We drew upon the expertise of our faculty with years of experience applying operations research and statistics to solve real-world industry problems, as well as the strengths of our two former master’s programs: one in management science, started in 1966, and the other in statistics, started in 1947.

Prize finalists (l-r): Jack Levis of UPS; Wenjun Zhou, Melissa Bowers and Charles Noon of the UT MSBA program; and Robin Lougee, chair of the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize Committee.

Prize finalists (l-r): Jack Levis of UPS; Wenjun Zhou, Melissa Bowers and Charles Noon of the UT MSBA program; and Robin Lougee, chair of the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize Committee.

As a result, we created a groundbreaking program that develops analytics professionals our industry partners call “high-level contributors” with “real-world business acumen” and impressive “face-the-client skills.” They’re individuals who have the skills to closely analyze data and interpret it in the larger context of an organization. All of our graduates are prepared for successful analytics careers in industry – and to date, all have secured highly competitive jobs upon graduation.

We highlight four distinctive ways we teach analytics from an industry context to best prepare our students for successful careers in business.

1: We partner with industry.

Our students know about industry needs from our UT Business Analytics Forum. The Forum brings industry practitioners to campus twice a year for a two-day conference for students, faculty and Forum attendees. The purpose of the Business Analytics Forum is to expand the analytics knowledge of our industry partners, the faculty and students; share best practices in analytics; and help solve business analytics problems. Industry practitioners give presentations on topics such as media selection, supply chain analytics, data governance, data visualization, the INFORMS Analytics Maturity Model, the Internet of Things and digital marketing. We host panel discussions on the challenges that analytics professionals face and highlight curriculum issues to ensure that our coursework remains relevant and up-to-date. The Forum also invites speakers from outside its membership – from companies that compete on analytics, such as Amazon, Tableau, Google, Teradata and even Kroger.

The Business Analytics Forum also provides an opportunity for students to sit across the table from senior level managers and executives at major corporations. Students hear firsthand the issues companies face and how industry is working to solve tough analytics problems. The experience reinforces the concepts they are learning in class and allows students to learn about the analytic skills most valued by industry.

The Forum also enables faculty members to collaborate with our corporate partners to formulate relevant and well-scoped student classroom and capstone projects.

2: Our curriculum continuously evolves in order to stay relevant.

As detailed previously, our MSBA curriculum spans six main areas of study. In addition, we develop our students’ soft skills, including written and oral communication, teamwork, ethics and leadership.

We regularly benchmark our curriculum against the academic analytics marketplace and stay in constant communication with industry through our Business Analytics Forum, our Advisory board, our capstone projects and regular communication with our industry partners. Thus, we continuously evaluate and update our curriculum to ensure that the education we are providing meets the needs of industry. For example, based on feedback we received from our industry partners, we incorporated the programming languages R and Python, as well as a course in big data technologies, into the core curriculum and are currently working to introduce a course on deep learning into the elective curriculum.

3: Our students get real-world experience.

Practical experience abounds for our MSBA students. In our classrooms, students learn from industry professionals. Professors employ real-world data sets and require the students to tackle actual problems from an industry partner in course projects. Our students interact within teams, write business reports and deliver presentations for both technical and non-technical audiences – again, mirroring real-world experiences.

Industry participation in the classroom. Industry experts serve as guest lecturers in our classrooms on specific applications of analytics. For example, in the decision optimization course, a subject matter expert from industry speaks on applications of mixed integer programming in sports scheduling. Similarly, a representative from the airline industry shares his experiences with optimization in commercial airline scheduling, as well as revenue management. In the statistical methods for business course, a subject matter expert often provides instruction on the application of visualization techniques using Tableau. Industry practitioners regularly deliver guest lectures on topics such as web experimentation and multifactor marketing in the design of experiments course. A portion of the database and big data technologies course is taught by two subject matter experts: one, an author of a textbook on Hadoop, and the other a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory working in big data and high-performance computing. In the systems optimization, decision optimization and simulation courses, corporate partners sponsor class projects and often provide valuable real-time feedback during the students’ final oral project presentations.

Industry-sponsored case competitions. In 2016, one of our corporate partners sponsored our first annual UT MSBA Case Competition. The company provided gigabytes of data, including point-of-sale and inventory data for one of the leading brands in its own retail stores and in a set of retailers. The company sought to understand the similarities and differences in purchasing behavior between shoppers of its products at big retail chains and customers at its own stores.

Student teams were given 48 hours to complete the analysis, prepare a visual presentation of their results, and deliver an oral presentation to the corporate analytics team. The students were forced to think critically and transform the data into the format best suited to answer the relevant business questions in a very short timeframe, and then communicate the results of their analyses to real-world analytics professionals. The corporate panel challenged each team with difficult questions.

The UT MSBA Case Competition has become an annual event. The spring 2017 case competition focused on determining the best strategies to drive online sales for a corporate partner. Students were provided DoubleClick Activity data from Google for analysis. In less than 48 hours, the students transformed gigabytes of data into valuable insights for the corporate sponsor.

This real-world analytics exercise using actual data coupled with interaction with analytics professionals from industry serves as invaluable training for the students as they complete their first year of study and prepare for their analytics internship.

Real-world experience: capstone course. In no course do our students benefit more from our industry partners’ involvement than our three-credit-hour required capstone course taken in the students’ final semester of study.

The University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business’ MSBA program was a finalist for the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize from INFORMS.

The University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business’ MSBA program was a finalist for the 2017 UPS George D. Smith Prize from INFORMS.

The capstone is no ordinary graduate class; in fact, it is not like a class at all. Our industry partners come to our program with real-world challenges. Our students step up to meet those challenges and create value for our corporate partners. The capstone experience allows students to work for an industry client as part of a team. It forces them outside their comfort zone to apply their soft skills and technical skills to solve a practical problem. In the capstone work environment, students are accountable for interaction with corporate executives, for developing and maintaining a well-functioning team, and for selecting and successfully deploying the technical tools needed to solve the problem. The environment is challenging, but the students are positioned to succeed. We have invested significant time and expertise in the evolution of a structure that enhances growth opportunities for students and simultaneously improves the outcome for the client.

Throughout the course, the students work in small teams of four or five on a tightly defined project with their client company. The faculty appoints one student per team to serve as the project manager who receives project management training from a program alumnus just before the start of the capstone semester. Every team is assigned a faculty mentor who serves as a sideline resource for the team. At the beginning of the semester, the teams travel to the client’s headquarters to meet with the project team. Together, they further define the problem, assess the data availability and scope deliverables. The students are afforded the opportunity to hear about the symptoms of the client’s business issue directly from the client. They see the processes and learn to ask the right questions to formulate a structured business problem statement.

Specific training to further develop communication, leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, technical writing and business soft skills is delivered by a faculty team in a “just-in-time/learn-do” manner that parallels the natural progression of the project. Throughout the capstone semester, teams have weekly video conferences with their client. Each team also provides updates on project status, issues, challenges, etc., in periodic updates to the other student teams and faculty mentors during capstone class meetings. Through this process each student experiences vicariously a set of eight to 10 capstone projects. At the end of the semester, students deliver their recommendations in a presentation to high-level executives from the corporate sponsor and provide a final written report, typically accompanied by a software application prototype. Most client companies immediately act on the insights or scale up and deploy the analytical models developed by the capstone teams – and then line up for the next capstone opportunity.

The capstone experience inspires a high level of confidence and maturity, giving our students a head start as they begin their careers as analytics professionals after graduation.

4. We are educating students in business, the environment where analytics is applied.

One defining element of our three-semester MSBA program is that our students leave with a fundamental understanding of business. Students have the unique opportunity to enroll in a subset of MBA courses, such as operations management, supply chain management, marketing and accounting. Students sit in the same classroom alongside MBA students, learning from their instructors and from MBA classmates. They serve on teams with MBA students concentrating in finance, supply chain, marketing and management, mimicking real-world, cross-functional teams where they play the role of analytics professionals. On these teams, they fine-tune their ability to explain analytic results in business terms that any manager can understand.

The Haslam MSBA constantly challenges students to apply what they’re learning by solving analytics-based business problems and working on real-world analytics projects so that our graduates can turn data-driven insights into actionable results in industry.

Melissa R. Bowers, Ph.D., (mrbowers@utk.edu) is an associate professor and the Beaman Professor of Business in the Haslam College of Business at University of Tennessee Knoxville where she is the director of the Master’s Program in Business Analytics.

Kenneth Gilbert is professor emeritus and former department head of the Department of Business Analytics and Statistics at UT. He is special assistant to UT’s vice president of Research and Economic Development, board member of HC21 Solutions (a provider of healthcare analytics services) and teaches in UT’s executive education programs.