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UVA’s Darden, McIntire Hook Up On Analytics



Wednesday 13 June 2018, by Marc Ethier

Darden’s Eleanor F. and Phillip G. Rust Professor of Business Administration Casey Lichtendahl, who will teach in the new MSBA program that launches this August. Darden photo

Program Name: Master of Science in Business Analytics

School: University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business & McIntire School of Commerce

Length of Program: 12 months

Cost: $54,900, plus a fee of $5,000

Late last month, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia gave its approval to an unprecedented collaboration at the University of Virginia. This summer, UVA’s two business schools, the graduate Darden School of Business and the undergraduate McIntire School of Commerce, will team up to offer a Master of Science in Business Analytics, with the first classes beginning in August. It’s the first-ever partnership between the two B-schools.

It was a long road to get to this point, says Cyndy Huddleston, McIntire associate dean for graduate admissions and corporate relations, noting that while McIntire is known as UVA’s undergrad B-school it also has a strong reputation for specialized master’s programs, offering a portfolio of degrees in commerce, accounting, and the management of IT. When McIntire officials announced their intention to launch the new MSBA, Darden was offered the chance to join the program in accordance with an agreement between the schools. 

“We’ve been thinking about how to do this for about four years,” Huddleston tells Poets&Quants. “As a state university, as you may know, there are a lot of levels of approval!” Among the many steps the two schools took to prepare for the launch of the new MSBA, she adds, was the addition of a business analytics track to McIntire’s Master of Science in Commerce degree, “so our faculty has experience taking liberal arts science and engineering students who have no background in business analytics, and teaching them business analytics.”

CREATING BRIDGE BUILDERS

Cyndy Huddleston, McIntire associate dean for graduate admissions and corporate relations

The Darden-McIntire MSBA program is geared toward working professionals. It will be delivered via a combination of weekend, in-person sessions and online instruction, offering students a mix of analytical and technical skills as well as foundational business knowledge and leadership instruction — all the staples of business analytics instruction, but with an emphasis on the fundamentals of business and leadership in the context of real-world applications, says Casey Lichtendahl, Darden’s Eleanor F. and Phillip G. Rust professor of business administration who will teach in the program. But the new MSBA will differentiate itself from competitors in key ways, he adds.

“Most of the schools that put out business analytics programs, who want to go after that segment of the market that wants to keep their jobs and do this in one year, they go at it with more of a data science approach,” Lichtendahl tells Poets&Quants. “And what we see lacking in those programs is enough business background — to have people with both hard skills and soft skills. The business analytics person’s role in a company these days needs to be more of a translator, a communicator, a builder of bridges between the hard-skill data science people and the soft-skill strategic thinker and manager. The way we put our program together was to give it enough business context and enough training up in the domain question at the same time we’re training up on some of the harder skills within those contexts.

“So we’ll be sampling problems across the disciplines within business, from finance to accounting to marketing, and we will teach them about those problems so they understand what the manager is faced with in terms of a monetization challenge — but at the same time, bring them up to speed on the math, the stats, machine learning, the data science part of what needs to be brought to bear to solve those problems.

“So that’s the motivation. We just see a giant gap in the market, and we’re going to put this program out there with this more balanced approach between business and analytics, and see what happens.”

‘A TEAM OF FACULTY WORKING TOGETHER’

The degree is intended for early-career professionals, those with two or more years of full-time work experience who seek to enhance their existing business analytics skills or build a career in business analytics. It will be delivered in UVA’s new, state-of-the-art facilities in the downtown Arlington, Virginia, district of Rosslyn — close to both Union Station and the Washington, D.C., area airports, making the program accessible for those commuting from most U.S. metropolitan areas. “We’re hopefully going to go after that local market of folks who don’t want to leave their job and can do this on the weekend and part of the evenings during the week,” Lichtendahl says.

Via six modules, the program will teach students a wide array of analytical and technical skills as well as foundational business knowledge and other soft-skill instruction. Key to the success of that instruction, Huddleston says, is the pooling of resources between the two B-schools.

“The more faculty you bring to the curriculum, the better, in terms of analytics,” Huddleston says. “Analytics is now found in every functional area as well as every industry within business, so as schools are building out their analytics faculty, each faculty member is coming from a different cross-section of experience — functionally and/or industry. So the broader you can get that set of experiences, the better for the student.”

“We teach and have taught other programs in a modular format. There are six modules to the program, and the reason I think that’s a distinction is that underneath each of those modules are your traditional courses — but because the module has a theme and a topic, it really encourages the faculty to see those courses within that module as a portfolio. So it becomes a team of faculty working together. For example, the third module is predictive analytics and machine learning. So you’ve got a group of faculty — some coming from a business perspective, some from the analytics perspective, some from more of a leadership perspective — and they’re all working together to curate the set of skills and classes, content, that will help the students really understand predictive analytics and machine learning — both from the technology side and the business side.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility that that creates that individual courses don’t create. And it allows us over time to keep the content of the curriculum really fresh, because every year that group is getting together and going, ‘What’s changed this year, and how do we integrate that into our courses?’”

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and McIntire School of Commerce are partnering to offer a new master’s in business analytics for early-career professionals in the Washington, D.C., area. Darden Report photo

How is this program different from what else is on the market? “There are three areas we are really focused on,” Huddleston says. “Analytics, of course, and to some degree the business content — I think we’re trying to go a little bit deeper into the business content to really understand what drives value in companies. It’s great to apply analytics to take actionable insights, but if those insights aren’t strategic — if you don’t really understand your business and what creates value for your business, you’re not very strategic and you can waste a lot of time, money, and energy.

“And then the third area that we have really tried to look at are those leadership skills that one’s going to need — for example, ‘What are the skills really needed for a strategic consulting process?’ Whether you are doing that externally because you are a consultant or internally, business analytics is a very consultative field, and so what are those those skill sets that you will need? Fro the basics of framing and designing the engagement to creating the hypothesis to communicating out to the business what the findings are — all of those consultative types of skills are being taught as part of the program.

“And along with that goes the management communication skills, so throughout each of the modules are aspects of communication. We’re going to help them understand how to do storytelling effectively. When I talk to people in this field, once you get past the entry level, that is such a key part of success. We’ll have topics on data journalism and on data visualization that tackle that.

“And one of the things that is a real strength at Darden is the whole idea of design thinking. You can get so analytical in the business analytics space, you can get too far off on the spectrum, so we’re trying to really pair that more creative side — that design thinking side — with the analytics, and particularly around the question, ‘How do you use those skills together to really help translate needs into more digital products or solutions?’”

Adds Lichtendahl: “People who are inquiring about the program or applying to the program aren’t necessarily interested in a typical data science program, where they take a real deep dive into the math side. They want to understand how the tools are applied without understand very deeply all the math and statistics. We’re going to get into some of that in this program, but it’s certainly not like these one-year Master of Science in Data Science programs that you see cropping up all over the country — UVA even has one!”

How does this degree differ from UVA’s M.S. in Data Analytics? According to the new program’s website, the M.S. in Business Analytics program:

  • Accepts “problem solvers” regardless of undergraduate major
  • Focuses on advanced analytics as applied to business, with an emphasis on actionable business insights
  • Prepares students for positions in marketing or sales analytics, strategic analytics, HR analytics, operational/risk analytics, financial analytics, web analytics, or consulting within a wide range of industries

The M.S. in Data Analytics program:

  • Requires a more technical background in computer science, statistics, or related fields
  • Focuses on the science of data (e.g., coding, modeling, analytic tools)
  • Prepares students for jobs such as data engineer, data analyst, and data scientist

Who is the ideal applicant and student for the MSBA? “We want to broaden the opportunities for people to get into this field,” Huddleston says, “so that’s why we want people with a minimum of two years’ work experience — doesn’t matter what the experience is. It just has to be professional work experience, preferably in some kind of business setting. They have to have an undergraduate degree in any subject. And they must demonstrate that they have strong problem-solving skills, good analytical reasoning skills, and a desire, obviously, to work with data.

“Some of those other skills that we look for: tenacity. This is a field that requires you to be tenacious, be persistent with complex problems, all while attending to details. You gotta make sure your data is good, clean data!”

Adds Lichtendahl: “Initially, we were looking for folks who were fewer in years out than what we’re actually seeing in the applicant pool. The applicant pool and the folks inquiring about the program are skewing even older than our MBAs.

What’s the application process? Are GMATs or GREs required? An essay? There is an application fee of $75. Applicants are required to provide, online, two essays (and another optional). The prompts are as follows:

“Essay 1: Please explain your motivation for seeking a Master’s in Business Analytics. Be as specific as possible about the skills and experience you would bring to the program and how this program fits into your career plans.

“Essay 2: Describe a project or situation that best demonstrates your analytical or problem-solving abilities. Please be sure to step through your thought processes and describe how you reached your conclusions.

“Optional Essay: If there is any further information about you or your background that you believe would be helpful to the admission committee, please feel free to provide it. (For example, you may provide an explanation of any academic weaknesses or gaps in collegiate or employment experiences.)”

Applicants must also provide a resume, two letters of recommendation, transcripts, and either GMAT (preferred) or GRE scores. Test waivers are available for those who hold a master’s degree in an analytic or quantitative discipline (such as science, mathematics, engineering, statistics, medicine) or a doctorate from a regionally accredited college or university; or those who have obtained a quantitatively oriented professional certification (such as CFA or CPA) and can provide a copy of the certification.

Qualified applicants will be invited to interview in person or via Zoom.

What are the application deadlines? Round 1 deadline is May 15; round 2 deadline is June 15, and round 3 deadline is July 15, after which applications will be judged on a space-available basis. Lichtendahl says the program will have an inaugural cohort of 40-45, with plans to bring the number up to 60 in a few years’ time.

What will students learn in the program? What’s the program format? Courses will be offered in a hybrid format — online and in-person, limiting students’ time away from the office while maximizing engagement with peers and faculty. Students will attend two four-day residencies in Charlottesville and seven two-day weekend class sessions at the new Rosslyn facilities. Students will also take part in online, faculty-led weekday evening discussions, along with flexible team and individual learning assignments.

The curriculum will include six themed modules:

  • Fundamentals of business analytics
  • Descriptive analytics: communicating the value of data-information insights
  • Predictive analytics and machine learning: developing competitive advantage through agility
  • Big data analytics and artificial intelligence: monetizing data in an era of digital transformation
  • Corporate-sponsored analytic challenge: translating your knowledge into strategic business solutions
  • Business ethics in the digital age: creating your future

The project-centric curriculum will open the classroom to industry experts and corporate sponsors, as well. Each module contains a series of traditional courses (course number, credit hours) that correlate to the topic. Grades will be given by course for the purpose of employer reimbursement. There will also be a capstone project, a company-sponsored analytics problem that teams will work on.

Roughly 65% of the program will be composed of faculty-led class sessions, with the remaining 35% of the program composed of projects, teamwork, and self-paced materials, according to the program website. Students will spend an average of 12-15 hours each week preparing for case discussions, participating in online classes, reviewing distance-learning material/videos, and meeting with classmates on project assignments.

How can students prepare themselves before the program begins? Books to read? TED Talks to watch? “I love the name of your publication, Poets&Quants,” Lichtendahl says. “So to the poets I would say, do something technical, get your toe into that water. Of course, they are going to get a full-on introduction to that when they get into the program, but it will help them to dip a toe into that water. For the quants, read a management article. How is data science being thought of in the C-suite? What do you think really moves the needle there?”

What do you expect student outcomes to be? “A lot of our competitors say you have to have a STEM background to do the program,” Huddleston says. “We’re trying to be broader. Part of my role is to be on the placement side as well, and when I talk to those companies, they’re having a hard time finding analytics professionals. So we’re hoping to broaden the opportunities for more people to get into this field.”

Once in the field, she adds, “I hope that graduates find new ways to help their organizations leverage their data and gain positive results from that. That’s the bottom line.”

Graduates of the program will join the UVA alumni network, which numbers more than 200,000 members around the globe. Their transcript will show the McIntire School of Commerce as the school of record with a notation that it is delivered in partnership with Darden.

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