MBA in business analytics: Big data is a big deal

BY Shannon FitzgeraldMay 04, 2021, 10:41 AM
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A decade ago, business school students sitting through core classes like introductory analytics and statistics weren’t terribly enthused. 

“They didn’t get mad at you, but they weren’t thrilled to be there,” recalls Brad Staats, an operations professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. That’s since changed, which is something he jokes about with colleagues who have been teaching analytics for years. “Today, everyone gets why they are taking the course.”

And the reason is that as big data changes the course of business, these MBA grads stand between the science and decisions that could impact a company for years. The right decisions, that is.

What is big data?

Business analytics, big data, data science, business intelligence, data analytics, management science—business schools are adding new classes, certifications, and degrees in this arena faster than we can agree on a single label.

Quite simply, business analytics is the practice of studying massive amounts of data and making strategic decisions based on the analysis of that data. It has, in some fashion, been studied across disciplines for years in business schools, but as today’s technologies continue to develop tools with which to collect and analyze growing tranches of data—and the trends or patterns they reveal—business analytics has transformed into its own discipline. And an extremely hot one at that.   

Why the business analytics concentration is here to stay

Aspects of business analytics have long been woven throughout the business school curriculum, including supply chain analytics in operations, consumer behavior in marketing, game theory in economics, people analytics in management. And because the technology continues to evolve, there’s infinitely more data—big data—to capture and analyze, and the data itself has become central to business. 

Rather than a limited tool in one or two components of a company, big data is driving decision-making in all aspects of business. As a result, companies are desperate for people who have the skills to collect the data, interpret it, and translate it into execution and strategy.  

Master’s in business analytics vs. an MBA in business analytics 

Among global postgraduate business programs, demand for the master’s in data analytics dwarfed all other one-year master’s degrees, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2020 application trends report. And these programs saw 34% growth in applications from the previous year. 

Nearly all MBA programs have, at the very least, a separate and distinct master’s in analytics. This degree is filled with engineers and computer science denizens, the people who speak in a shorthand of algorithms and are fluent in Python and R and are coding, coding, and coding. 

Because big data is rapidly changing the face of business, business schools are just as quickly evolving their analytics offerings, as well as reimagining the role of analytics throughout the org chart. An MBA focusing on business analytics has a different, less technical role. This student likely has quantitative leanings, is comfortable with data sets, and maybe knows a little Python, but is also viewing this data holistically and considering how it should be used and why. 

An MBA for the data whisperer

“What business frequently needs, we are finding these days, is the person who is in a translator role, who sits between the business problem that needs to be solved—whether that’s increasing revenue or cutting costs or fill in the blank—and the Ph.D. data scientist, who might be using the most sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence methods,” Staats says.

But the translator can also be the guide. Big data–based decisions are often made without a map, and it’s the role of the MBA alum, who is also trained in soft skills like leadership, strategy, and people management, to think through not just what will happen, but what else could happen. 

Dokyun Lee, an assistant professor of business analytics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says there can be an algorithmic bias and ethical concerns (like gender or racial bias from a too-small subset of data) that often surface only after launch. That’s why it’s important to have a technically adept MBA who has had exposure to organizational behavior, consumer psychology, and business ethics, he adds. 

“Their job is to think about the unintended consequences of business technology and to guide the company so that when they are applying A.I. and algorithms, they do so in a way that is not harmful”—and, ideally, in a responsible way, Lee notes.  

Lee says MBA students on the business analytics track are uniquely suited to think beyond engineering and to incorporate multiple objectives. They can also push forward a responsible agenda and educate their colleagues and companies about this nebulous, futuristic world of A.I. and deep learning, he adds.

Hiring prospects for business analytics MBAs

Companies that recruit on the Kenan-Flagler campus are increasingly citing analytics as No. 3 on their wish list of capabilities, according to Staats, who is also associate dean of MBA programs. The cross-disciplinary nature of business analytics aligns with demand across industries for people with analytics MBAs.

Many of these grads head into consulting, which can be lucrative and offers variety in both the type of industry and company. Another career path is owning a product and managing that product and its team at companies like Google or Amazon. Many students also go into marketing analytics roles or health care, Staats notes. 

These MBAs are nimble and can switch roles easily. They aren’t developing the drugs or the algorithms, but they’re taking those algorithms and A.I. and applying them to health care, to e-commerce, to a supply chain. “That’s another competitive advantage,” Lee says. “Because they don’t have to have the specialized knowledge, they can easily switch.”

Programs that break out employment data for analytics or data science jobs report comparable compensation between those roles and that of general management. MIT’s Sloan, Penn’s Wharton, and Chicago’s Booth report median data analytics salaries ranging from $125,000 to $154,000 for students who earned their MBA degrees in 2020. And that doesn’t include signing bonuses of up to $30,000. By comparison, these schools reported general management salaries of about $130,000 and similar signing bonus amounts. All three programs reported the median salary in consulting at $165,000.

B-schools serving up the business analytics 

Schools are incorporating analytics as a discipline in a variety of ways, and that means coursework varies by program, though most are STEM-certified. Interestingly, business analytics has created an opportunity for business schools, particularly those that don’t typically show up in the top rankings of MBA programs. But these schools have been ahead of the pack in developing their analytics departments and rank highly in the field. 

Some MBA programs offer business analytics as a straightforward concentration or specialization, like Kenan-Flagler and the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Georgia Tech’s Scheller school offers a concentration and an immersive track through its business analytics center.

Other programs that offer analytics solely as a track or pathway are Tepper, Northwestern’s Kellogg, and Cornell’s SC Johnson. 

There are also schools with additional offerings in the field, atop the main concentration: Booth offers analytic finance and econometrics and statistics as two separate concentrations; Babson has a second concentration for business analytics and machine learning. 

Some programs, like MIT’s Sloan, Berkeley’s Haas, and Georgetown’s McDonough, offer their MBA students a business analytics certificate after completing electives from the master’s program curriculum. 

Finally, some schools offer analytics in a specific area. Both UCLA’s Anderson and the University of Washington’s Foster offer marketing analytics as a specialization. And Foster also has a STEM-designated management science MBA, as does Michigan’s Ross, in addition to its business analytics concentration. 

No matter the format, the reason business schools are adding to their analytics curriculum each year is that big data is big business. Specializing in business analytics is an opportunity for the MBA student who understands the value of data and has the ability to interpret and translate it into business strategy and goals. For those who want a place at the table for the big conversations, big data just might provide you a seat.