With a flood of information rushing in to the business, companies are increasingly demanding workers who can analyse the data and make insights and predictions. However, finding a properly trained person for the job can be a difficult challenge.
Deakin University has announced plans to fill the skills gap with Australia’s first big data postgraduate program, supported by IBM, SAS and Microsoft. “It’s not a cliché – we do live in an information age,” says Dineli Mather, head of Deakin University’s School of Information Systems.
“There’s so much information being captured and used day to day,” she says. “With business organisations, that information they can store is massive, but there has to be a strategy behind it. What information do we capture, how do we capture it, and very importantly, how do we then use it to get a better business outcome and competitive advantage?”
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In October, Deakin and IBM launched a Centre for Excellence in Business Analytics. The centre is based at the Deakin’s Melbourne campus.
Starting in March, Deakin’s School of Information Systems will offer a business analytics major within the Master of Information Systems, MBA and Master of Commerce.
In addition, the school is developing a full Master’s degree in business analytics for offer from July 2013. Mather expects to enrol 60 to 80 students in the first group for the 18-month program. She also predicts many students from other degrees will take analytics as an elective or specialisation.
The Deakin program will allow students to specialise further in the specific sector they want to apply their knowledge, including health, finance and economics, Mather says. IBM meanwhile plans to offer business analytics certification through the centre.
“Even the smallest businesses are interested in analytics,” Mather says. “If they can use analytics, they can actually target their marketing more carefully and it becomes a lot more cost effective to run their business.”
Developing the program
Deakin’s School of Information Systems had focused on information systems and management, but the university was finding shrinking interest in the program from students, Mather says. At the same time, it had become evident that businesses were increasingly hiring graduates with a different skillset altogether.
“What was clear was that business had moved into business analytics five or six years ago, but universities hadn’t really kept up with it and created the kind of graduate that business was looking for. At the start of the year, we couldn’t even find more than half a dozen courses globally that were offering business analytics.”
Use of analytics to decipher big data has been growing exponentially in the last five years, says Mather. “But awareness of the power of business analytics has really reached a peak over the last couple of years and the technological advances and the software tools that are available now allow people to do analytics very easily.”
Deakin had already been using an IBM business intelligence tool, Cognos, in some of its courses, so the university reached out to the vendor to discuss how to expand the course into an entire program in business analytics.
Mather says the university’s collaboration with industry makes its coursework unique among analytics programs in Australia. “We did interviews with all of the companies who are having major analytics practices,” including IBM, Microsoft and top consulting firms, and asked what skills they are actually using and what type of people they want to recruit.
“What we found was that there were essentially two roles that people could have in business analytics. One was traditional pure analytics,” including quantitative analysis and text mining, she says. “But the bigger range roles were for a more generalist” who could understand how information is captured, stored, governed and kept secure; how to draw insights from the information; and how to link those insights to business strategy.
“Our course is going to be unique in that it is the first business analytics course to have that full spectrum.” Yale and New York University are developing similar programs in the US, but Deakin will have the first in Australia, says Mather. Macquarie University and the University of Sydney have some courses, but do not offer full Master’s programs.
“We want the students to walk off with two things,” says Mather: “The academic foundations and theoretical skills, but also the practical outcomes so they can hit the ground running when they go out there” into the business world.
About six to eight Deakin staff will teach the program. However, a third of each subject will be delivered by business practitioners, Mather says. “For example, we have a predictive analytics unit that will use SAS and we’ve already met with SAS and are discussing how we use the SAS tool but also how we can involve people from [the company] to teach part of the program.” The school will similarly involve officials from IBM and Microsoft, she says.
“It’s more than guest lectures,” she says. “The guest lecture process relies on people’s goodwill. We are actually doing it more as a strategic partnership.” With IBM, “in exchange for their delivering a third of the unit and getting involved in course design, we will contribute more money into their certification programs”.
It’s “absolutely compulsory” to involve real businesses in the program, Mather says. “It’s one of those discipline areas where it’s all about practice. The theoretical foundations on their own don’t really prepare you for the work.”
With input from business, Mather expects course material will change over time. “It’s a very young discipline and very much an evolving discipline.”
Students coming into the Master’s program are expected to have some business experience, though the school will offer a foundations program for those who do not, Mather says. Most of the people who have inquired about the courses so far have three to five years of work experience but “want to move into this field,” she says. “That’s our ideal target.”
IBM has worked with universities around the world as part of an education initiative, but the collaboration with Deakin is a “closer engagement” than it’s had in the past, says Mike McKee, IBM business analytics regional manager for Australia and New Zealand. “We see it as an exciting next step in terms of our relationship with the tertiary institutions.”
The company will provide its business analytics software Cognos BI and teach students how to “use it in a business and practical sense,” McKee says. IBM plans to provide speakers, conduct workshops and coordinate with the school on special projects involving real IBM clients, he says.
It will also help integrate its certification program into Deakin’s offerings. IBM will “work with Deakin to ensure that the components of our certification program are incorporated in their teaching, so that at the end of it, part of the exam they may do” is IBM’s certification test, he says. Certifications to be offered by IBM at Deakin are: introduction to statistics; introduction to analytics; relational database fundamentals; and introduction to big data.
Business analytics is one of IBM’s top four focus areas, McKee says. “We are focused on that because we see a huge demand in the marketplace. We’ve seen big data is growing and the requirement for business analytics is growing dramatically.”
IBM sees a key skill in “getting beyond just using structured data and using unstructured data ... in a more intelligent way” to predict future outcomes.
The resources industry in Australia, in particular, has demand for big data analysts, McKee says. Those organisations may want to predict outages on large pieces of capital equipment so that they can perform maintenance before the problem occurs, he says.
However, “students are coming out of university often with good technical skills but not as well positioned in terms of the requirements of the marketplace”.
“We are very keen to see that the universities do produce graduates that are very skilled and have a business orientation when they come out of university.