Wendy Moe teaches a class at the University of Maryland, which is one of many business schools that have added academic programs focused on big data and analytics. Moe heads the marketing analytics program, which began this semester. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Two or three of the students recently completed undergraduate degrees in finance or economics. Others hail from backgrounds in information technology or marketing. One even holds a doctorate in astrophysics.

But each of the 18 students who enrolled in the inaugural class of George Washington University’s master’s in business analytics this semester were drawn back into the classroom by one common interest: big data.

Companies are collecting data faster and in greater volumes than ever before, giving executives and managers measurable insights into business performance that can, in turn, be used to make smarter decisions. As a result, the need for data scientists and analysts has never been higher.

Business schools around the Washington region and beyond are among the many academic departments responding to that demand, crafting courses, certificates and entire degree programs around the topic of big data and analytics. The goal, academics say, is to prepare today’s students for today’s data-centric workplace.

“You have to acknowledge that the kinds of data that we’re dealing with, the sources they’re coming from, the volume of it ... these are all clearly things that we haven’t seen before or we haven’t had access to,” said Srinivas Y. Prasad, an associate professor of decision sciences and faculty director of the business analytics degree at GWU.

“They want to see how this stuff is applied in a business context.”

Big data degrees

GWU’s 10-month master’s degree is an outgrowth of a less comprehensive certificate program that the school began offering to MBA students several years ago. That program had 10 to 12 students its first year, Prasad said. By the second year, there were 75.

Master’s students now complete 33 credits in courses such as data mining, forecasting for analytics, computational analytics and data warehousing. The curriculum aims to balance the mathematical roots of data analytics with the business concepts needed to apply it in a real-world company.

Those dual objectives complicated the design of the program, Prasad said.

“How do we differentiate the fact that we’re a business school offering an analytics program? It’s not a program that’s heavy on the machine side of things that you might find in a computer science program, designing the algorithms and so on,” Prasad said.

The University of Maryland has taken a different tack. The business school began offering a master’s degree in marketing analytics this semester, comprised of 38 recent undergraduates from fields such as engineering, math, computer science and physics.

“Our goal is to find students with a quantitative aptitude, who are really good with math and data, and provide them with the marketing framework,” said Wendy W. Moe, associate professor of marketing and director of the marketing analytics program.

Students complete courses in marketing strategy, customer analysis, statistical programming, business communication and business ethics, among others. Businesses can attract graduates with data analysis experience, but they may lack the education needed to apply that knowledge in a business environment. The program bridges that gap, Moe said.

“We wanted to get the curriculum right. About half the courses are completely new to the school and the other half are adapted,” she said. “We’re probably the only marketing analytics program out there. It’s a very specific skill set that we’re giving students.”

The skill set is in such demand that the Reston-based Graduate Management Admission Council added an integrated reasoning section to its Graduate Management Admissions Test a year ago to assess students’ aptitude for applying data to real-world problems.

Larry Rudner, vice president for research and development, said the section was developed over four to five years after surveying faculty, businesses, students and graduates about the skills that are ultimately needed in the workplace.

“The math department, they’ll probably produce better data analysts,” Rudner said, “but the business school is going to produce someone who can see the forest for the trees.”

Demand for data skills

Big data as an academic discipline has attracted the interest of IT behemoth IBM.

The company has partnered with more than 1,000 colleges worldwide, including Georgetown University and George Washington, to provide software and curriculum aides to those who teach big data and analytics courses.

Jim Spohrer, director of IBM’s Global University Programs, said about 40 percent of the institutions that participate in its big data program are business schools. Another 40 percent are engineering schools, with the balance comprised of other academic fields, such as social science or health.

“It’s not like we could solve the problem if we had more computer scientists in data analytics,” Spohrer said. “The fact of the matter is we need marketing people who know big data analytics. We need health care people who know big data analytics.”

That demand was spelled out in a June 2011 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the economics and business research arm of McKinsey Co. Researchers there estimate 440,000 to 490,000 jobs will require deep analytical skills by 2018. Another 4 million positions will require a less sophisticated understanding of data and analysis by 2018.

“Like other essential factors of production, such as hard assets and human capital, it is increasingly the case that much of modern economic activity, innovation and growth simply couldn’t take place without data,” the McKinsey report said.

If the existing graduation rate of students with sufficient data analysis knowledge persists, a substantial shortage of workers with the necessary skills will emerge, the report warned.

“Developing deep analytical skills requires an intrinsic aptitude in mathematics for starters, and then takes years of training,” the report said. “Addressing the talent shortage will not happen overnight, and the search for deep analytical talent that has already begun can only intensify.”

A more cautious approach

Big data and analytics started making their way into individual courses at George Mason University’s school of management about three years ago.

Pallab Sanyal, assistant professor of information systems and operations management, altered his undergraduate and MBA courses on data warehousing and business intelligence, respectively, to focus on the subject.

But there’s only so much content that can be covered in a single course, Sanyal said. Students wanted to learn about social media and text analytics, for example, but there weren’t enough weeks in the semester. The school began to consider a formal program.

“Given that other schools already have some programs, do we have enough students to fill out classes if we were to offer the certificate program?” Sanyal asked.

The school settled on “yes.” A certificate program is making its way through a committee. If given the green light, the first class could begin next year.

Other schools have been in less of a hurry to create certificate or degree programs.

At Georgetown, professor Betsy Sigman has added a section on big data to her undergraduate class on databases. She also organized a day-long symposium on big data and business education in April, funded through an IBM grant.

“I’m learning a lot about how to teach about big data. It’s not always the easiest thing to get set up in the classroom and enable students to do,” Sigman said.

The business school hasn’t devised a degree or certificate program around the subject, but that’s something that Sigman could see taking shape.

“The jobs are out there. The need is there. That’s for sure,” she said.

The business school at American University has also balked at diving head first into a degree program. While J. Alberto Espinosa, chairman of the information technology department, acknowledges business professionals today need to be savvy users of data analytics, he said schools should be wary of chasing trends and creating cookie-cutter programs in the process.

“It’s almost like a gold rush. Everyone is trying to get in and trying to get the best faculty,” Espinosa said.

“We’re being a little slow and cautious about doing this because we want to be sure whatever we implement is something that’s going to be different, that’s going to distinguish our school from other schools,” he said.

Still, Espinosa said big data and analytics are becoming a focus at his university. The business school is no exception, and courses have already been modified to address the topic.

“Decision-making through data is not going to replace the savvy decision-making that executives are engaging in, but it’s going to complement it,” Espinosa said. “More and more companies and institutions are making decisions using data, so we need to provide our students with the tools and skills that are needed to do that.”