By some calculations, modern technology—particularly in the social media and smartphone era—has led to the generation and archiving of more data in the past few years than anytime in history. The umbrella term, "big data," has been wielded in a variety of ways, broadly capturing the explosion of exponentially increasing troves of data: everything from users' Web-browsing trails to shoppers' purchasing history at the supermarket.
While the term "big data" is difficult to pin down, it's become increasingly prominent in the past few months, particularly given New York Times blogger Nate Silver's success using statistics to predict outcomes in the presidential election. The White House announced a $200 million big data initiative last March, which it said would "greatly improve the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data." And there may be gaping holes in the workforce—perhaps even a shortage of 1.5 million managers with big data expertise by 2018—according to a May 2011 McKinsey & Company report.
IBM, which uses its Academic Initiative to partner with more than 6,000 universities, also stressed the importance of the field. "While there is a lot of buzz about big data in the market, it isn't hype," states the IBM website.
But as big data makes headlines, and engineering and business schools launch MBA and M.S. programs in this discipline, the terminology—which can range from "big data" and "business analytics" to "data science," "business intelligence," and "predictive analytics"—may confuse graduate school applicants trying to determine what kinds of analytics training they will need as executives.
When the University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business Administration launches its new master's of science in business administration next fall, it intends to identify the program's concentration as business analytics, rather than big data, explains Mark Zupan, dean of the school.
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"We first started thinking of this as 'big data,' and then our alums were the ones that convinced us we're much better positioning it as 'business analytics' ... There's always been a ton of data. To think because there's a ton of data you can make better decisions is crazy,'" says Zupan. "It's still 'garbage in, garbage out' if you don't know what to extract and how to interpret it. Just having more information is not an asset in and of itself."
Big data embodies the traditional vision of management as an art, where executives follow instincts, while the Simon School is gravitating toward analytics, because it is a more scientific approach, according to Zupan. "The people that use 'big data' loosely will sometimes backpedal and say, 'Oh yeah. We meant the other stuff, too,'" he says. "But in my mind ... too much of big data just focuses on a ton of data."
The Simon School isn't the only institution increasing its focus on business analytics. New York University's Stern School of Business, Arizona State University's Carey School of Business, and Michigan State University's Broad Graduate School of Management plan to debut master of science programs in business analytics in fall 2013. The University of Texas—Austin's McCombs School of Business already has an analytics M.S. program, and Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business offers a specialized MBA in analytics.
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NYU's M.S. program, for example, will teach students "both to understand the role of evidence-based data in decision making and to leverage data as a strategic asset," according to its website, and "is designed for experienced professionals interested in gaining competitive advantage through the predictive potential of data." Courses will include Dealing with Big Data, Data Mining for Business Analytics, and Probabilistic Models for Finance, the site states.
Anindya Ghose, a codirector of NYU Stern's Center for Business Analytics, is one of the proponents of big data who doesn't buy Zupan's distinction. Big data is a tool that companies need to use to do effective business analytics, allows Ghose, whose research focuses on the economics of information technology. But rather than downplaying the importance of big data, he says it's "one of the biggest transformations we have seen in the industry ... [which is] here to stay, and it'll just get bigger."