Analytical to the Core

In response to industry demand, Arizona State integrates analytics throughout its curriculum.
Deriving Meaning from Data

Victor Benjamin, assistant professor of information systems at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe, has been working in analytics for more than a decade. In that time, he has seen “a great evolution” in the teaching of analytics, as new technologies make it easier for individuals in nontechnical disciplines to explore the use of information systems and the application of analytics to business problems. In short, says Benjamin, “Analytics is no longer just for nerds.”

Once a nontraditional part of business curricula, says Benjamin, data analytics programs quickly are becoming the norm in many business programs. In fact, the W.P. Carey School has made analytics a priority in its curriculum, by adding courses that meet industry needs, strengthening industry partnerships, and exposing students to the tools and techniques they’ll need to become proficient data analysts and strategists.

TRAINING ‘TECHNICAL WIZARDS’

When the school asked members of its executive advisory board what they most wanted from an analytics curriculum, they emphasized the need to train undergraduates in principles of design thinking and data visualization and expose graduate students to innovations such as sensor technologies and open artificial intelligence platforms.

For undergraduates, the school has introduced a required core course called Problem Solving and Actionable Analytics, which trains junior-level business majors to define and apply data analytics and modeling solutions. Students practice “self-service analytics,” in which they identify a meaningful research question, and then choose appropriate methods to gather, clean, and analyze the data, explains Yili (Kevin) Hong, associate professor of information systems and a co-designer of the course.

“It amazes me that students come up with such relevant questions and address them with rigorous methods,” says Hong. “One team used visualization to identify key factors for the gender wage gap; another used regression analysis to find that women, children, and the elderly are most likely to survive catastrophic events. Considering that students have not conducted a research project before, these are big achievements that inspire them to use analytics for decision making in their future work.”

MBA students can take a similar but more advanced version of Problem Solving to practice decision making with analytics. Last fall, the school also added new graduate offerings such as Information-Enabled Business Modeling, a course in its master of science in information management; and a data and analytics track in the School of Accountancy’s master of accountancy (MACC).

This track represents a significant transition for the MACC, one that recognizes “how the business world—and the accounting profession, specifically— will function for the next 20 years and beyond,” says Andy Call, interim school director and professor of accountancy.

In another new graduate course in the school’s master of science in business analytics program, Applied Projects, students work on data-driven projects submitted by corporate partners. Over the semester, students devise solutions, outline their methods, and advise companies on ways to improve their data, says instructor Raghu Santanam, department chair and professor of information systems.

One corporate partner to Applied Projects is Ports America, a shipping container and cruise ship terminal operator. Its leaders ask student teams to recommend strategies for improving the safety and efficiency of its terminals. “It would be very difficult for us to hire 25 data scientists to work on these problems,” says Tianbing Qian, a senior vice president with the company, in an ASU video.

The city of Phoenix asked one team to track the movement of inventory in its warehouse to find evidence of theft; it asked another to look for ways to improve the efficiency of its waste collection service. Lisa Faison, lead business systems analyst for the city’s public works department, emphasizes just how many solutions are available to organizations that take data mining seriously. “In garbage alone, you’d be surprised at how much data is available,” Faison notes. ASU students now are examining garbage collection data to compare the extent to which residents use the city’s curbside pickup and alley pickup services. Faison says that the city will use the students’ findings to increase participation in recycling programs and meet its goal of diverting 40 percent of its waste from landfills by 2020.

Courses across the curriculum prepare students for work with corporate clients through smaller projects that require them to identify the data sets and technology most relevant to the problem at hand. For instance, student teams in the school’s master of science in information management role-play as social media analysts within companies of their choosing. Each team identifies potential problems within its chosen company that can be investigated using social media data, before spending the next few weeks determining solutions. In the process, teams experiment with technologies such as natural language processing techniques and machine learning algorithms and work with data visualization techniques.

“Individuals who started the course with no programming experience became ecstatic over the new ‘technical wizardry’ that they had developed.” — Victor Benjamin, Arizona State University

Students who enrolled in the first run of the course came in with different levels of technical proficiency, says Benjamin, who teaches the class. For that reason, he was prepared to provide them with a great deal of guidance. To his surprise, many students quickly applied what they learned to take their projects farther than he expected. Even “individuals who started the course with no programming experience became ecstatic over the new ‘technical wizardry’ that they had developed,” says Benjamin.

CROSSING THE CURRICULUM

Before creating these new courses, the school already offered a business data analytics major and a master’s program in business analytics. Its newest program is a certificate in business data analytics, open to all business majors.

Each year, approximately 1,000 undergraduates and 300 graduate students enroll in the school’s analytics majors and programs. In its first year, the MACC data and analytics track enrolled 38 students. Students can opt to pursue either a technical track that focuses on the technologies or a managerial track that delves into the implications and applications of analytics.

The school ensures that all of its analytics courses and programs work together by coordinating them across multiple departments. For example, its master’s degree in business analytics cuts across information systems, supply chain management, and marketing. Similarly, the development team for Problem Solving and Actionable Analytics includes individuals from information systems, supply chain management, economics, and the dean’s office.

By working together, says Santanam, faculty “find common threads in analytics relevant for all business majors.”

CREATING A CULTURE

The W.P. Carey School’s ultimate objective is to create and sustain an analytics culture based on collaboration among students, faculty, practitioners, and corporate partners. Several of the school’s partners now regularly sponsor six- to 12-month extracurricular projects completed by faculty-led student teams. Executives also attend the school’s academic-industry joint conference that explores issues related to analytics.

In the end, any successful analytics curriculum will be well-connected to industry, dynamic in its response to technological changes, and focused on helping students understand the role of analytics in decision making, Santanam emphasizes. As business schools add analytics- inspired offerings to their course portfolios, he says, they “should plan on integrating practical and immersive learning experiences to increase the business relevance of the programs.”

Howard Riell is a freelance writer for Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

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