Taking a Data-Driven Road

As published in MN Business Valley Journal

February 01, 2018 |

Every card swiped, every song streamed, every imaginable interaction beyond smoke signals all leave little trails that add up to Big Data. And businesses of all sizes are falling over themselves trying to harness it.


“Companies are saying it’s one thing to collect data and another thing to actually know what to do with it,” said Luke Howk, the College of Business’ external partnerships coordinator.


After more than two years of crafting the Business Analytics Certificate, it will be offered for the first time in the spring of 2018. The certificate is designed to equip the bearer with abilities to read and analyze data.


So how big is Big Data?


“Nationally there are studies that suggest the number of people required to analyze data or interpret that analyzed data for the next


10 years could be a couple of million people,” said Department of Finance Chair Roger Severns. “So tremendous demand.”


One of the early proponents and designers of the analytics certificate, Severns credits finance professor Joseph Reising with getting analytics a bigger role in Minnesota State Mankato business offerings. Reising approached Severns two years ago with the idea of teaching an analytics course. “I thought it was a good idea,” Severns said, “and we began teaching a special topics course on the subject.”


After offering the analytic-focused course twice (and seeing a doubling in student enrollment between the two), a full analytics course was offered for the 2016-2017 academic year.



Meanwhile, the analytics market prompted the creation of a certificate which, while tailored toward students in business and economics, is structured so anyone could take it.


While working on the requirements of the certificate, faculty asked Howk to check with some of the businesses that partner with the college as to whether they saw value in such a certificate for either incoming or existing employees. Howk checked in with about 20 different firms, including UnitedHealth Group, IBM, Taylor Corporation and Microsoft. “The response was overwhelmingly ‘yes,’” Howk said. “They value these skill sets and thought the certificate would be great. And they all said ‘if we can help further somehow, let us know.’”


IBM was particularly interested, expressing its interest in having its Rochester-based international finance center staffed with pros who are well-versed in analytics. Last fall, faculty working on the certificate were invited to visit the center to see how the company was using analytics to transform its operations.


“They showed us exactly what they’re doing, what kind of technology they’re using and the processes they’re using,” Howk said. “It was like a boot camp style day for us.” Later, IBM officials in March spent a full day on campus demonstrating analytics with students and faculty.


IBM financial manager and Minnesota State Mankato alumnus Todd Stockmo said the day was an example of a good, mutually beneficial partnership between university and business.


“It’s a two-way street, we try to provide them with feedback on course curriculum or skills that we’re looking for, so they’re better prepared not only for us but for whoever they’re going to work for,” Stockmo said.


Included in the all-day event were demonstrations of a powerful analytics tool IBM uses called SPSS Modeler.


IBM describes it as a user-friendly data mining and text analytics software that can be used to build predictive models and conduct analytic tasks.


“It’s great at using and manipulating and analyzing large volumes of data and we’re using it in a predictive manner,” Stockmo said. “We’re trying to use it to forecast. Maybe a revenue forecast, cost forecast or expense forecast – using that modeling tool to give us the best view of the future that we can get.”


And now students will have access to the same tool as the international finance team at IBM – the company has given the University free access to the SPSS Modeler system.


“Lots of the heavy duty analytics that businesses do cannot be done without highly powerful analytics tools and systems,” Howk said. “IBM gave us a very powerful tool.”


IBM in Rochester has more than 50 Minnesota State Mankato graduates working in finance. With the certificate added to the University’s offerings, that number could increase.


“We’re certainly trying to develop, as many companies are, groups of analytics professionals within their finance organizations,” Stockmo said. “That analytics certificate is going to be a good first step toward that.”

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