Marketing and Communications

Learning to speak the language of ‘big data’

By Bonnie Blankinship

“Data don’t talk to strangers. You have to get to know your data,” Dr. Christopher Rump tells his students in applied statistics and operations research.

In an increasingly data-driven world, businesses need an interpreter to make sense of what all the data they are collecting have to say to them. BGSU is preparing students and business people to learn that language through an undergraduate specialization in business analytics and intelligence and a brand new master of analytics program. There are few comparable degree programs at peer institutions.

In addition, the University is reaching out to the business community through events such as the Best Practices in Analytics Symposium, held in April.

According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2018, the U.S. is expected to have a shortfall of 140,000-190,000 people with critical analytical skills. Graduates with a master of science in analytics are already in high demand, and as more companies begin to tap into Big Data, the demand for these jobs with excellent pay, benefits and career advancement opportunity will continue to rise.

The growing field of analytics can help guide companies’ marketing decisions and business practices based on information they collect — from people’s Internet use and shopping history and from myriad other sources.

“We know that Google and other Internet-based businesses such as Facebook depend on information for their ads; data are really their essence,” said Dr. Arthur Yeh, a professor and chair of the Department of Applied Statistics and Operations Research. “But traditional companies like Cooper Tire have been collecting customer data for many years as well. The question is what to do with these data.

“What is powerful about analytics is that it is data-driven and fact-based,” he said. “While we can never throw out intuition, human brains cannot process the huge amounts of data that are available today very inexpensively. But numbers can yield some surprises, and companies can make good use of the information if they have employees with the skills to analyze it.”

The College of Business Administration has for two years been offering its undergraduate specialization, which Yeh characterizes as a “marriage among statistics, operations research, computer science and management of information systems.”

Trevor Bischoff, a recent graduate from Napoleon who triple majored in accounting, finance and business analytics and intelligence, said, “What’s most appealing about this specialization is that it combines everything else you’re learning and helps you derive meaning from it.”

By drawing on each of these disciplines, data miners gain new insight. Rump directs the specialization and teaches the required data mining class in applied statistics. He explained that the “intelligence” part of the program’s name refers to the ability to not only interpret data but to communicate their meaning.

Bischoff especially enjoys that challenge. “The data mining and the business intelligence are parallel. It’s not only deriving the meaning, but being able to convey it perfectly. What do you want to say? What is the best way to display it? We use a number of software applications that allow us to present it in different ways. We can create a sort of ‘dashboard’ to display trends and key performance metrics, and see what will happen if we vary a factor.”

Undergraduate students pursuing a bachelor of science degree in business administration may add the specialization by taking two additional statistics courses and two management of information systems courses geared toward analytics. There is no additional math required, although the field appeals to people who like dealing with numbers and have an aptitude for quantitative analysis, Yeh said.

“You have to have a sense of curiosity to enjoy this,” Bischoff said. “You have to be curious about the natural trends in everyday life. It’s as if this gives us a big spreadsheet with data and teaches us how to explain it to someone else.”

At the graduate level, BGSU’s new one-year, full-time, interdisciplinary master’s degree in business analytics combines a total of 11 classes in management of information systems, applied statistics and operations research, and computer science. The program will run from August to August.

Students will learn the hands-on application of analytics. The program is designed both to allow working professionals to enhance their job skills and to make up-and-coming recent graduates more marketable.

“The ability to analyze data will be helpful in any area of business, from finance to accounting to supply chain management,” Yeh said. “In fact, it’s almost becoming a must.”

Analytics students will learn to use “Big Data” to identify trends or patterns, help forecast events and thereby guide their companies’ actions, and develop models with which to produce improved outcomes. They will also learn to use tools to present and share their findings in a clear way and to manage business analytics projects.

Along with Yeh, Drs. Hanfeng Chen, a professor of mathematics and statistics, and Joe Chao, an associate professor of computer science, collaborated on developing the new graduate program, which is administered by the Graduate College.

From Coca-Cola utilizing 600 flavor variables to create a formula for standardized orange juice to Barack Obama’s team of campaign strategists using analytics to determine where best to place their resources and when — “Every day there are more examples of the impact of business analytics,” Rump said. “Companies are innovating and using data in ways we haven’t seen before.”

“Data collection has been happening for a long time, whether we like it or not,” Yeh pointed out. “From a business perspective, it is better to base your decisions on data than intuition alone.”

(Posted June 17, 2013 )