Delivering A Cutting-Edge Business Analytics Program to Build Data Leaders

Melissa Bowers

Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence have moved from emerging technologies to become core tools in organizations today. These technologies enable enterprises to dive deeper into ever-growing volume of data to solve multifaceted business problems. In an interview with Analytics Insight, Melissa Bowers, PhD, Director of the Master’s in Business Analytics (MSBA) program at the Haslam College of Business shares how the college offers a cutting-edge business analytics program to train the next generation of data scientists for today’s forward-thinking organizations.


Kindly brief us about your role in the Haslam MSBA program and your journey in this highly promising sector.

I am the director of the Master’s in Business Analytics (MSBA) program in the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We launched the first MSBA program in a college of business in the fall of 2010. I was on the initial curriculum design committee formed in 2009 where we started from scratch to build a curriculum specifically designed to meet the analytics needs of industry. I became the director of the MSBA program in the summer of 2014.


What is the edge your Analytics program has over other institutes in the industry?

Our success comes from a powerful combination of 1) a well-designed, innovative curriculum that develops in each student a fundamental understanding of business, strong analytics skills, and a set of soft skills demanded by industry; 2) a one-of-a-kind, real-world capstone course experience; and 3) multiple links to industry so that our students gain real-world industry experience throughout the entire program. The program’s technical content represents a balanced blend of data science, statistics, and operations research, but that alone is not enough to be a great analytics practitioner. You also need the ability to identify and solve the right problem, so our curriculum includes targeted content to develop a student’s business acumen, but we didn’t stop there. The combination of technical skills and business sense is still no guarantee of effectiveness. You also must have a strong set of soft skills to be able to work with others, manage projects, interpret results, and communicate the problem, methods, and insights. Our curriculum is designed to deliver on all of these necessary elements.

We incorporate real-world experience throughout all aspects of the program. This keeps the focus on our ultimate goal of preparing great practitioners. These experiences take many forms, including firsthand cases and datasets embedded within coursework, subject matter experts who lecture in our classrooms, and a required summer internship. We foster constant interaction with practitioners through a variety of touchpoints including our Business Analytics Forum, industry-sponsored case competitions and hackathons, and through our semester-long crown jewel of experiences, the capstone. In the capstone, students experience the full life cycle of a team project with an actual corporate client. The projects are authentic, challenging, and important to the client companies, most of whom are Fortune 100s.


Please share some major achievements of the Haslam MSBA program under your leadership.

 To date, the three-semester Haslam MSBA program has achieved 100 percent employment of its graduates within six months of graduation for every class since the program’s inception. In April 2018, the Haslam MSBA program was named the winner of the INFORMS UPS George D. Smith Prize, awarded annually since 2012 to an academic program or department for effective and innovative preparation of students to be good practitioners of operations research, management science, or analytics. INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science, is the leading international association for operations research and analytics professionals. The Haslam MSBA program is the first analytics program to receive the award.


What have been the most significant challenges that the MSBA program has faced at the forefront of analytics?

 The primary challenge has been maintaining a cutting-edge curriculum that trains students in the technical skills demanded by the industry in the rapidly evolving area of analytics. We keep our finger on the pulse of analytics in the industry through constant contact with our industry partners via our departmental advisory board, our Business Analytics Forum, our capstone partners, corporate recruiters, and annual benchmarking efforts. Our ability to then continuously place the most relevant technical skill set the market demands into the hands of our graduates hinges on an agile curriculum. Our curriculum, for example,  has included a course in data mining since inception. Also, in the past five years, machine learning has transformed from an academic niche to mainstream relevance. In 2016, in response to market demand, we added Python to the list of programming languages that our students learn. We also increased the machine learning content of our data mining classes and added a course in big data technologies. In spring 2019, we are adding an entire course devoted to deep learning. Our business analytics faculty will teach this course and deliver it in the context of business applications.


Can you brief us about the course curriculum and pedagogy of analytics education in the Haslam MSBA program?

 The Haslam MSBA is a three-semester program that begins each fall. It requires a summer analytics internship with graduation following the second fall semester of the study. The program is comprised of 38 required semester hours. All students must take a prescribed set of 26 hours of core courses during their first two semesters. In their final semester, students enroll in a capstone course along with nine required hours of electives where they may choose to specialize in supply chain analytics, marketing and consumer analytics, data science, or become an analytics generalist.

Because the Haslam MSBA is housed in a college of business, students who enter the program with no business background are asked to enroll in the MBA Operations Management course and may enroll in MBA courses such as accounting, supply chain, and marketing to learn the fundamentals of business, an aspect of the program critical to our students’ success.

Because of the value, our industry partners place on business soft skills training, during their first semester of study, our students enroll in Business Skills Development. The course is dedicated to developing soft skills such as oral and written communication, the art of persuasion, storytelling, knowing one’s audience, group communication, interpersonal interaction, networking, interviewing, and career planning. These skills are rehearsed and reinforced with hands-on activities like mock interviews, elevator speeches, and a mock career fair and business dinner.

The required core curriculum ensures that all students build a strong analytics and technical foundation. The analytics core curriculum includes training in basic statistical methods, visualization, regression, time series, data mining, and machine learning. During the summer before entering the MSBA program, students must earn a certificate in R programming. This basic set of coding skills is strengthened with more technical content in R, Python, VBA, database management, SAS, and big data technologies. By design, all students complete 24.5 hours of analytics and technical courses during the first year of study so they are prepared to make an impact in their required summer internship.


What kind of practical exposure would be offered to students as part of the program?

 Practical experience abounds for our MSBA students, but perhaps the best real-world experience for the students is their capstone course, taken during their third, and final, semester. They work in small teams of four or five students on a project with a client company. The faculty appoints one student per team to serve as the project manager. Each such student receives custom project management training from a program alumnus just before the start of the capstone semester. Every student also attends a custom High Performing Teams workshop designed specifically for our MSBA students to further sharpen their teamwork, problem-solving, creative thinking, project management, and business soft skills prior to the start of the capstone semester. Every team is assigned a faculty mentor who serves as a resource for the group. At the beginning of the semester, where travel distance permits, each student team, along with the faculty mentor, travels to the client’s headquarters to meet with the project team. Together they further define the problem, assess the data availability, and scope the deliverables. The students are able to hear about the symptoms of the client’s business issue directly from the client. They see the processes as they relate to the business problem and learn to ask the right questions to formulate a structured business problem statement. Throughout the capstone semester, the teams have weekly video or conference calls with their client. Each team also provides periodic updates to other student teams and their faculty advisors during the capstone class meetings. At the end of the semester, the students deliver their recommendations in an oral presentation to high-level executives from the corporate sponsor and provide a final written report as well. Most client companies immediately act on the insights or scale up and deploy the analytical models developed by the capstone teams.

Each spring, a corporate partner also sponsors our annual MSBA case competition. The company provides a case description of a current problem and an accompanying dataset. The class self-selects into teams and is given 48 hours to complete the analysis, prepare a visual presentation of results, and deliver an oral presentation to the corporate analytics group. The students are forced to think critically and transform data into insights in a very short timeframe. The industry partners challenge each team with difficult questions. This real-world analytic exercise serves as invaluable training for our students.

Our students also learn about analytics in the industry from our Business Analytics Forum. The forum brings industry practitioners to campus once or 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 as well as share best practices in analytics and help solve business analytics problems. The industry practitioners give presentations on cutting edge topics. The forum also invites speakers from outside its membership from companies that compete on analytics, such as Tableau, Google, Teradata, and Kroger.

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