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New SIUE business analytics program draws students, employers

p01 tim schoeneckerBy ALAN J. ORTBALS
    The Southern Illinois School of Business commenced a new program last year — a specialization in business analytics. There are currently 15 students enrolled and the first of them should graduate next spring.
    “Some folks will be using it to launch their careers,” said Tim Schoenecker, interim dean of the SIUE School of Business. “For someone who’s already employed, it may help them with an internal promotion with their current employer.”
    While just a year old, the program is already having an impact, according to Clay Williams, an associate professor and director of SIUE’s computer management and information services program.
    “I know for certain it is having an impact on our recruiting,” Williams said. “A very significant percentage of the applications I’m seeing for people wanting to join our program want to do this program specialization. They earn a master’s degree with a specialization in business analytics and it goes on the student’s transcript. It is recognized academically. There is a marketplace appeal.”
    Schoenecker said that when they sat down to design the program, they wanted to make sure that it would interface with all of the business school’s master programs: Master of Science in Accountancy, MBA, Master in CMIS, Master of Marketing Research, and Master of Economics and Finance. They also wanted to give it a different twist than other business analytics programs around the country.

    “Business analytics programs are something newly emerging across the nation,” Williams said. “We are not the first to do it but the orientation of our program is a little bit different. We are not focusing on the hard-core technical data scientist. We are focusing on the actual business user of the information who is challenged to fulfill their job responsibilities.”
    The business analytics specialization is a six-course sequence that focuses on developing the business skills needed to utilize lots of different kinds of company and corporate information to help make better business decisions. Each course is 8 weeks long so students can take two per semester.
    Students are required to take a couple of pre-requisite courses, Williams said, to make sure they have a solid grounding in basic quantitative analysis: doing regressions, modeling and statistical analysis. There’s also an information systems requirement to make sure the students know how to source information. Faculty in each of the school’s masters programs have identified the topics that are important to their domain.
    “Then they take, Intro to Business Analytics, a 3-hour course in which we introduce how to get access to the data,” Williams said. “We teach them about using query language to get into databases. We teach them about the different ways that organizations will create their databases so that it is possible to do different kinds of analysis. We teach them about the different data warehouses, data marts, how the different structures of the data are put together, why are they are put together that way and we teach how to get access to that data. Essentially, we teach them how to go grab the data; how to use different tools to perform some analysis on it; to understand how these different pieces fit to together; and why you do certain things. What we are doing is preparing them to have the pieces they need to perform much more substantive analysis.”
    Once they have a firm grounding, students can select two electives that are related to their area.  They dive deeper into more complex and robust ways of analyzing data and how to present it to make it more meaningful to their audience.
    The sixth course is the business analytics capstone. In this process students are given a business problem that senior management would be interested in understanding. They are then challenged to determine the kinds of data they’ll need, how to organize it and how to analyze it to answer the questions management is asking.
    “This is scenario-based,” Williams said. “We don’t understand the traffic in our store; we don’t know how products relate to each other. There are an infinite number of kinds of problems. And, most importantly, they have to put together a presentation appropriate to a senior level audience that doesn’t care about the statistical analysis — people who want to know what the information means and what to do with it. What are we going to want to do differently tomorrow based on this analysis?”
    While analyzing data to make smart business decisions has been a core of business education for a long time, Williams said that it has changed due to a couple factors. One, the amounts and types of information — accounting systems, social network feeds and other non-numeric sources — has greatly expanded. And, two, data analysis used to be something only large companies had the wherewithal to engage in. Not anymore. Now even smaller companies with robust information systems can produce large amounts of data that can help them manage their business better.
    Not only is the new program attracting students to the SIUE School of Business, it’s also attracting interest from the other end of the spectrum.
    “I can’t identify companies by name,” Williams said, “but in the last two months, three significant companies you would know in the greater Metro East area have come to us and expressed an interest in working with our students in internships, co-ops or when they are ready to hit the job market. We’re getting interest from both students and our corporate partners.”
    And developing strong relationships with businesses throughout the metropolitan area is an important goal of both the school of business and the university in general, according to Schoenecker.
    “That’s a huge emphasis not only in the school of business but with the new chancellor, Randy Pembrook,” Schoenecker said.  “He’s very externally focused and wants us to be engaged in the community. For us, that’s primarily the business community.  This is one way for us to do that.”

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