The Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program at St. Edward’s University prepares students to use analytical tools to make data-driven business decisions. Program director John Loucks explains how St. Edward’s gives program graduates key skills for a growing field.
Business analytics is a rapidly growing field. Why?
The broad use of business analytics has been around for about a decade. The ubiquity of smartphones, smarter point-of-sale devices, and of course the explosion of ecommerce have generated vast amounts of data. Companies began to collect this data and mine it for trends and patterns, and as their analysis became more successful and yielded better decisions, more executives began paying attention. The results have been pretty phenomenal, to where we have analytics for everything: marketing, finance, accounting, supply chain, human resources and more.
Can you explain the analytical process?
Business analytics is all about data-driven decision making. First, you have to understand the question you’re trying to answer. What problem does the organization want to solve, or what process would it like to improve? It might be trying to reduce costs, increase revenue or improve customer service.
Then come four stages of analysis:
• Descriptive: gathering and organizing data to determine “what happened”
• Diagnostic: analyzing data for patterns and insights about why it happened
• Predictive: developing a model to show what is likely to happen in the future
• Prescriptive: using the data and modeling to recommend the best course of action going forward
What is an example of a real-life application of business analytics?
Business analytics methods have helped a large bike-share system improve its operations. The analysts used system data to forecast bike usage and figure out when and where bikes were needed. Then, they studied how to relocate bikes, so they were available at the right place and right time. The entire analysis resulted in greatly improved placement of docking stations and allocation of docks to stations, as well as the redistribution of bikes among the stations.
The feature of our program that is most distinctive is the breadth of analytical tools our students learn to use. They take nine technical courses and develop proficiency with tools including predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, simulation modeling, optimization modeling and Python.
How is business analytics different from data science?
Data science focuses more on math, programming and how to identify patterns in the data. Business analytics focuses more on the application of this information. It starts with a problem or question and ends with the analyst presenting potential solutions to stakeholders, implementing the chosen option and evaluating the outcome. Our program teaches students math and programming but in a business context. Students apply business analytics to problems or decisions in supply chain, operations, human resources, marketing and finance.
As a mission-driven institution, St. Edward’s focuses on educating both the mind and the heart. In a numbers-oriented field like analytics, what is the role of the heart?
In this field, being able to identify the mathematically optimal solution is important. But in class we talk about how a suboptimal solution – one that is not mathematically the best, but still a good solution – might actually be superior. It might address other factors the algorithm didn’t explicitly consider.
For example, a solution might be mathematically optimal because it minimizes costs the most. But another solution is less risky, or better for employee morale, or more aligned with the company’s social-good goals. Not all of those factors are as easily quantified. In this way, our students are encouraged to consider fairness, equity and the human impacts of their choices.
What are the ethical issues that a person in this field needs to consider?
Ethical issues are especially prevalent in the collection, handling and use of data. We talk about this in class quite a bit: How is the data being collected? Are the people generating the data aware that it’s being collected? What are you using the data for? And what security do you have in place to protect people’s privacy? Some of this is governed by law, but even when there aren’t applicable laws, there are ethical and moral dimensions to these questions.
We also talk about the pitfalls of allowing bias in algorithms that unfairly impact certain people. All these discussions align with the St. Edward’s University mission of training students in moral reasoning and preparing them to make responsible decisions.
What technologies or ideas make the MSBA program state of the art?
The feature of our program that is most distinctive is the breadth of analytical tools our students learn to use. They take nine technical courses and develop proficiency with tools including predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, simulation modeling, optimization modeling and Python. At the end of the program, they have a practicum where they apply the tools in one or two significant projects that are taken from industry. Students work with a local company that provides its data and a problem or opportunity to analyze.
What kind of student is a good fit for the program?
The MSBA program is a great match for students who have a serious interest in business analytics. Computer programming training and complex math skills are not required. Students have diverse undergraduate majors – not just business.
We recent graduates and also students with work experience – which really adds to classroom discussions, because they bring examples relevant to their current job. This is a good degree for people who want to move into a field with abundant opportunities and strong earning potential.
Finally, the MSBA is part of a business school and university whose missions focus on ethics, social justice and positive societal impact. Students with this type of focus will feel in good company and be inspired.
How is the Master of Science in Business Analytics program valuable?
The program builds skills through a broad curriculum and hands-on training, and it offers the chance to build relationships with fellow students and with faculty experts. It is a pathway to a growing field that offers challenging and interesting work along with good earning potential and opportunities for advancement.