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Business Intelligence, MS, and MBA

Originally published January 10, 2011

To arrive at the simplest truth requires years of contemplation. - Sir Isaac Newton

 Before I address anything else, I would like to encourage business intelligence (BI) professionals to participate in a survey sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University and the BeyeNETWORK to assess the state of business intelligence. Click here to register and take the survey. Participant anonymity is assured and the survey is brief. Results will be reported on the BeyeNETWORK in Spring 2011.

Also, I am happy to announce the 2nd annual academic BI Congress was held in St. Louis on December 11 and 12, 2010. This conference brought together academic professionals and industry representatives who share a common passion for research and education innovation in the field of analytics. The conference website notes that at the 2009 BI Congress in Phoenix, Arizona, academics and practitioners identified gaps in BI teaching and research: BI instruction was not meeting market demand, and numerous research directions remained unattended. The goal of the 2010 BI Congress was to generate momentum and close these gaps by providing support for those who teach analytics and by facilitating constructive discussions around analytics research in progress.

Business intelligence is also a key topic at the 33rd International Conference on Information Technology Interfaces to be held in Cavtat/Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 27 -30, 2011. I will be a keynote speaker at this conference and I will discuss opportunities for research in business intelligence.

Okay! Now, on to my anxieties about graduate education.

I am concerned about the diversity in how business intelligence is being represented in academia. I recently came across a description of a new masters program in business analytics at the University of Tennessee Knoxville that offers three tracks focusing on various career paths: applied statistics, business process optimization, and business intelligence. While the three tracks share a common core of courses, subsequent courses differ in emphasis. The applied statistics track emphasizes courses in applied statistics, design of experiments, time series, multivariate, and data mining and its techniques. The business process optimization track focuses on business process optimization, descriptive and prescriptive modeling, streamlining operations, systems optimization, and business process modeling. The business intelligence track uniquely emphasizes business intelligence and information retrieval, performance and risk analysis, systems optimization, and business cases and data mining.

Unfortunately, I could not find the course descriptions on the website. However, I thought it was interesting how business intelligence was differentiated from the other tracks. I could not help but think that the distinction was somewhat artificial. All three of the tracks seem relevant to business intelligence. They all provide a heavy dose of statistics and quantitative methods, accounting and finance (no marketing!), optimization, process understanding, communications, IT skills, probability and stochastic processes, simulation and decision analytics, regression, data management, and an introduction to operations and supply chain concepts (whew!). In my opinion, the distinction in emphasis between the tracks is relatively minor, and I suspect graduates  A from all three tracks are analytically and technologically savvy. This is an excellent program and I’d hire anyone from any of these tracks as a BI analyst. 

This program is much more representative of what business intelligence should encompass than is represented in many MBA programs that offer a BI track. At the University of Alabama, for example, data mining and certification in SAS Enterprise Miner are emphasized in promoting the BI concentration. At Georgia State University, the MBA offers a business analytics concentration that includes courses in business intelligence, data mining, and business modeling. At Grenoble University in France, the BI concentration (sponsored by SAS) includes three courses: business intelligence strategy, customer intelligence, and corporate performance management. At the University of Arizona, a student seeking an MBA with a BI concentration must choose three courses from the following: strategic management of information systems, IT security and business continuity, enterprise data management, managing enterprise systems, and business intelligence. My last example is Dayton University, whose MBA BI concentration includes a course in business intelligence, a course in data warehousing, and a choice of one of the following courses: fraud examination, strategic performance measurement and control, special topics in operations management, market analysis and research, and database management.

What I hope is clear is that the BI concentrations offered by these MBA programs are in no way comparable to the MS Analytics programs offered by the University of Tennessee. BI education requires many in-depth courses in analytics and the use of related technology and application software. MBA programs simply can’t provide this in a three-course track, nor do they claim to! 

An MBA degree is granted after one to two years of graduate-level university study. It provides training in the theory and practice of business management. The MBA is basically an academic document that certifies you have a general competency in all the major functional management roles you'll find in the modern corporation. The MBA is often perceived as a career and wage accelerator across a number of industries. On average, 150,000 MBA degrees are being conferred each year.

Hence, we should not put too much stock in the ability of an MBA program to make someone an expert in any field. It is not the intent of the degree. When institutions market these programs to students, concentrations provide a useful means to hook students on an area of specific interest that, in fact, can only be marginally explored in any depth.

The alternative to MBA programs is an MS in business. Business MS programs are specifically focused on a particular field of study. For example, an MBA with a concentration in finance might have two to four courses in finance, while an MS might have 10 to 12 (or more) courses in finance. In MS programs, the goal is to educate an expert, not a generalist. Over time, employers have demonstrated continued support for their employees’ pursuit of MBA degrees. Today their support for MS degrees in business is rapidly gaining more traction.

Surprisingly, there are quite a number of MBAs who go back to school for an MS business degree and vice versa. Students have become savvier in understanding the strengths and limitations of each degree, and they are discovering that they can realize the benefits of generalization and specialization by acquiring both degrees. 

It is important that the employer and the employee understand the difference between the degrees so that expectations are in line with the degrees’ objectives. That is, one shouldn’t expect someone to become more of a generalist by earning an MS degree, and they shouldn’t expect someone to be more a specialist by taking an MBA degree. 

I think it is healthy that employers and employees are expanding their views of what constitutes adequate advanced education for today’s world.  Just as any undergraduate curriculum has core courses and majors, graduate education is likewise increasingly requiring both breadth and depth of course content. In a more complex and technical world, more is better. Hence, depending on your background, this may be the time to consider an MBA, an MS degree, or even both degrees. It all depends on what you and your employer realistically expect to accomplish with the investment in graduate business education.

  • 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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