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Business Intelligence Versus Analytics Graduate Programs

Originally published August 24, 2010

Whenever two good people argue over principles, they are both right.
 – Marie Ebner von Eschenbach

IBM and DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media have announced a new Center for Data Mining and Predictive Analytics that is intended to give students expertise in predictive analytics. As part of the program, DePaul is also offering students a Masters of Science in Predictive Analytics. A press release discusses the market for students with skills in predictive analytics:

“The new predictive analytics curriculum is designed to prepare university students for careers in key industries such as energy and utilities, healthcare, education, transportation, criminal justice and public service that increasingly require analytical skills.

According to the April 2010 ‘IT Occupation Trends in Illinois’ study conducted by the Illinois Technology Association and CompTIA, 65 percent of Illinois businesses see business intelligence and analytics as important jobs they must fill within the next two to three years. Firms rate these as important occupations, yet they lack confidence in finding the right workers for these roles.

Today, businesses and governments are driving transformation projects with predictive analytics to understand customer behavior, detect fraud, lower energy consumption through smart grids, improve customer buying experiences, reduce traffic congestion, predict part failures, and combat crime. As organizations seek to create value from the exponentially growing amount of structured and unstructured data, they need leaders with strong analytical capabilities to understand this data for smarter decisions and, thereby, improve performance.”

Congratulations to DePaul University! This is a great development. DePaul joins a handful of other higher education institutions offering graduate BI-related programs (e.g, Saint Joseph’s University’ MSBI, University of Denver’s MSBI, NC State’s MS in Analytics).

What’s especially important about all of these programs is that they understand the depth of coursework needed to adequately educate students for this field. Too many institutions are marketing BI MBA concentrations that consist of two to three specialty courses that are insufficient to adequately prepare someone for a position as a BI/analytics professional.

Programs in higher education that want to really focus on BI/analytics must develop their curriculum in such a way that it effectively balances instruction in information technology and analytics since there is a complementary and interactive relationship between the two.

The figure below highlights elements of information systems and analytics that are important to business intelligence (BI) and how they overlap. Courses in information systems are critical to BI because IS provides core competencies needed to derive, execute, and share analytics. Analytic courses are also important in order to formulate what critical analyses make the most sense under which particular circumstances and then to interpret the findings.

I have noticed that MS programs in analytics, including predictive analytics, incorporate both IS and analytics in their coursework. This observation leads me to suggest that these are essentially “BI” programs with an “analytics” moniker. The only significant major difference that I can see is that BI graduate programs are housed in business schools while analytics programs are not.

I am concerned that some BI/analytic graduate programs ignore coursework in communications. Communication competency is critical in this field to as it essential to influencing decision makers and to sharing BI/Analytic processes and reasoning. If I had to make a judgment about the quality of a graduate BI/analytics program, inclusion of a communications component is a criterion that I’d include.

As I noted in my recent article, some people in the field are inclined to want to make a distinction between the terms business intelligence and analytics. There are assertions that BI “ends” with the data “something” [e.g, base, mining, warehouse] or the “dashboard.” BI is seen as the data source and the reporting mechanism. Analytics, on the other hand, is viewed as the means for conducting analyses of the data “something” that enables proactive ways to mitigate risk and capitalize on opportunities. This, I think, is an artificial and too contrived a distinction. For this distinction to be true, one would have to believe that there is no predictive component to intelligence! And we know that’s not the case. I mean most able people look both ways before they cross a street, not just because they want a report on the number of cars [data “something”] coming, but because they want to best predict when it is optimal to walk across the street so they don’t get hit by a car!

I hope that the discourse over the difference between BI and analytics will cease. Relative to how the terms and concepts are being operationalized today, they are essentially equivalent. We do ourselves a disservice by digressing and debating conceptual and semantic differences between the two because all this does is confuse our constituency and clientele. We use the acronyms MIS, IS, and IT interchangeably, and everyone knows that we are basically talking about the same thing. Let’s let the same thing happen with BI and analytics.

As I see it, BI/analytics faces a more pressing issue. There is a lack of qualified talent that inhibits BI’s widespread adoption and diffusion. Interestingly, this is a complaint that I have heard not only from companies, but from BI software vendors as well.

There are only a handful of graduate programs in business intelligence and analytics, and those that exist are new and relatively small. Compared to an MBA, an MS in BI/Analytics is a niche program. It has a much smaller applicant pool, and those that apply typically must be interested in acquiring a very specific and narrower set of skills. That is, they are taking a specialist degree, not the generalist degree that an MBA is.

To ensure the long-term viability of MS BI/analytics programs, I’d urge everyone to encourage appropriately talented employees to attend graduate programs in either business intelligence or analytics, especially when the graduate schools offering these programs are basically teaching students the same things. Don’t let a BI/analytics terminology debate distract from this critical issue!

  • Richard HerschelRichard Herschel

    Richard is Chair of the Department of Decision & System Sciences at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Before becoming an educator, he worked at Maryland National Bank, Schering-Plough Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, and Columbia Pictures as a systems analyst. He received his BA in journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University, his Master’s in Administrative Sciences from Johns Hopkins, and his Ph.D. from Indiana University in Management Information Systems. He has earned the Certified Systems Professional designation, and he has written extensively about both knowledge management and business intelligence. Dr. Herschel can be reached at herschel@sju.edu.

    Editor's Note: More articles and resources are available in Richard Herschel's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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