Big data, big insights: FIU prepares students to lead in business analytics

In a world obsessed with collecting information about our every preference and action, those who interpret the resulting treasure trove are in demand across all industries. FIU is leading the way in training the next generation of data sleuths through its booming undergraduate business analytics program. Launched in 2014, the program has hundreds of students taking advantage of a degree that is exploding in popularity nationwide.

“Business analytics help us understand how people operate so we can improve their lives and their businesses,” says Karlene Cousins, professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and Business Analytics in the College of Business. “In every field, there is a need for professionals who know how to harness that data, clean it, organize it and make sense of it.”

Analysts use data for various reasons, among them to get a picture of what is happening, or might happen, to determine the best way forward. For example, a streaming service wants to understand which genres have the greatest appeal to subscribers to make decisions about inventory, a hotel chain needs to anticipate numbers of guests at a specific location on a given weekend to ensure proper staffing and a transportation company wants to cut costs through better route planning. In each case, extrapolating from the numbers is critical.

Leaders at the College of Business believe so strongly that every student needs a grasp of the concept that even non-majors must take fundamental courses on the topic. (And in the interest of helping students across the entire university round out their resumes, FIU offers noncredit mini-courses to build competency in data interpretation and communication, completion of which confers a micro-credential.)

Majors go deep into the nitty gritty: data extraction, mining, warehouse storage, visualization and artificial intelligence. Oftentimes, students add a second major to narrow their focus, taking, for example, the finance, accounting or marketing route to prepare for careers as business analysts or the study of biology for work as health data analysts.

Whatever their chosen field, successful professionals will have the skills to make data come alive and, therefore, actionable. Storytelling is especially useful when a company needs to understand its target audience to provide the best product or service and how to market it effectively. Personalizing the “typical consumer” by ascribing specific characteristics – 30ish, female, busy professional, for example – provides a human lens through which to wade through nameless, faceless data.

Students hone such storytelling as they complete projects based on real-world data. Professionals from a variety of industries come to the classroom to share information with teams, who together crunch the numbers and investigate what the numbers could mean for a company looking to retain customers, improve revenue or make decisions about a product line. They present their findings to classmates as they might in a boardroom or on a Zoom full of executive decision makers.

Alumnus Leonardo Cordero ’03, CEO of the global consulting practice and executive think tank wiSource, participates in the teaching and mentoring around the projects because he sees the growing need for solid business analytics professionals.

“Despite the massive acceleration of data availability, many organizations lack the capacity to use it,” Cordero says. “This degree is useful in every business, in every transaction.”

Alumnus Guy Pavilus ’22 knows firsthand how in demand his skills are. The alumnus was snapped up by the American Welding Society as he was completing a bachelor’s in business analytics and has since chosen to enroll in the business analytics track of FIU’s master’s in data science while he continues working for the 100-year-old organization.

“They needed to get into this century and be digitally fit to succeed,” he says of the national society headquartered in Miami. He’s using technology to aggregate information from various platforms to paint a picture in real time and facilitate nimble financial decision-making.

And while Pavilus and others see the value in utilizing numbers to inform the future, he cautions that the human element, for good or for bad, remains integral and cannot be divorced from the process.

“We think that since it’s about data, it’s going to be fair and just, but we forget that algorithms are written by humans,” he says. “We have to be aware of our biases while doing the work. We should be conscious of what we are doing and think about the consequences of what we are putting out.”

With that perspective undergirding the science, a new breed of professionals aim to move business forward.

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