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Harnessing the Big Data Explosion

How executive education courses in analytics can help managers make better decisions
Aug 28, 2014 — M. Filtz
For something that only exists in computers and cables, it’s funny just how unavoidable data is. One can’t open up a newspaper without reading about the staggering amount of data that is collected every day. These otherwise inconspicuous zeros and ones, when piled up, are described as “revolutionary” and “game changing.” 
 
But it’s more than just hype. The fact is that many companies today have access to a huge range of data that can be leveraged to make strategic decisions.
 
Simply knowing how to sort and analyze data, and then being able to ask the right questions about it, can give a company a competitive edge. According to a recent report by Bain & Company, companies with the most advanced analytics capabilities generally make better, faster decisions than their competitors.
 
“Some opportunities and some risks can only be identified from data,” says Dessislava Pachamanova, who teaches on a two-day program at Babson College called “Business Analytics for Managers: Using Data for Better Decision Making.”
 
“Only a better understanding of analytics can help a manager navigate such opportunities and risks.”
 
Increasingly, companies are tuning in to the strategic advantages of big data. 
 
“I think everybody is asking the question 'how can we use the data that we have, to make better decisions around the choices that we have to make?’” says Phillip Leslie, an associate professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.
 
The problem is, since the field is still relatively new, many managers haven’t yet learned how to effectively use data analytics in their decision-making processes. 
 
“Managers inside of companies today didn't grow up with that,” says Leslie. “This is a new approach.”
 
In October, Leslie will teach on a new executive course called “Put Your Data to Work: A Leader’s Guide to Effective Analytics.” Over three days, the program will delve into the big-picture issues around data analytics, including how to ask the right questions, effectively collaborating with analysts, and thinking critically about data.
 
Like many other executive programs, the UCLA course will give an overview of important concepts in analytics through a mix of presentations, practical exercises, and groupwork. 
 
“It’s about being more actively involved in the design of an analytics strategy, and being able to answer an important question for the business,” Leslie says.
 
With the new course, UCLA joins a growing number of executive education providers that are offering open-enrollment programs in business analytics and big data. Many of these courses, such as Harvard’s four-day “Competing on Business Analytics and Big Data,” and UNC Kenan-Flagler’s three-day “Big Data and Business Analytics,” are fairly general, and are aimed at leaders who come from a wide range of industries.
 
Another group of programs are the ones that target specific industries or functional groups, for which data is becoming significant. For instance, Penn State’s Smeal College of Business recently announced that it will offer a new, two-day program focusing specifically on how big data can be used in marketing for the hospitality industry. 
 
Like many other industries, hospitality is field where data analytics are becoming increasingly important as a competitive advantage. 
 
“We don't think of hotels as being traditionally a web-based business or a technology business,” says UCLA’s Phillip Leslie, “but there's an immense amount of data that a hotel chain is accumulating around transactions, capacity utilization, and pricing.”
 
Regression analysis? A/B Testing? Huh?
 
Fortunately for those who may not have a PhD in data science, most of these executive programs cover the more strategic issues involved in analytics. Therefore, a robust understanding of technical concepts is usually not required. However, many of the courses will touch on the basics of how data is collected and analyzed. In the Babson course, for instance, participants practically address a business problem with commonly-used analytics software. The exercise is designed to be “manageable for somebody who has never built a model or used the software packages before,” according to Dessislava Pachamanova.
 
Pachamanova does advise that participants have some knowledge of Microsoft Excel before taking the program.
 
Likewise, Phillip Leslie says that participants coming into the UCLA program don’t need much technical understanding at all. However, the program will explore some of the mechanics of common analytical procedures. 
 
“If you're going to interact with data analytics as a leader,” Leslie says, “it's helpful to have some insight into what the mechanics look like and what some of the underlying statistical issues might be.”
 
For many managers, an exposure to the basic tools involved in analytics is one of the takeaways from these executive programs. But beyond that, participants will come away with a more fundamental understanding of the kinds of questions that can be answered with data, and how to ask them. And this can lead to being more comfortable about using data to make better business decisions.
 
“It's going to increase peoples' enthusiasm and confidence around relying on data,” says Leslie.
 
Photo: University of Michigan Library / Flickr
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