Big Data Classes For CXOs

Teaching C-suite executives the fundamentals of big data, a topic once confined to the rarefied world of computer scientists, is becoming a growth industry.
In the U.S., calls for executive programs about big data are growing louder. "We've been asked by several companies, and we're deliberating how to offer this," said Diego Klabjan, professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and director of Northwestern University's master of science in analytics program.

At the moment, Klabjan envisions two tracks: One to bring a company's existing IT personnel up to speed about big data and data analytics, and another aimed squarely at the executives. "We'll start the training program early next year," Klabjan said, adding that the executive program is going to require more planning. Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management already offers students an optional data analytics course, Klabjan said.

Another school considering an executive program is George Mason University, which has graduated some 200 Ph.D.s from its computational sciences and informatics (CSI) doctoral program, founded in 1992. "We're rapidly assembling a program," said Kirk Borne, professor of astrophysics and computational science at George Mason University. Meanwhile, course content is morphing to be less physics oriented, he said, "so we can talk to the business school." Borne was an attendee at the recent Chief Data Scientist Summit in Chicago.

Yannet Interian, another attendee at the event, is a data scientist at Google with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Cornell University. Interian said she is preparing to teach a class at the University of San Francisco, which she said has reached out to professional practitioners like herself from the business world.

Although big data is in the spotlight now -- thanks in large part to the volume and variety of data gushing out of social media channels -- getting non-IT business executives to pay attention to data isn't a new problem, said Carla Gentry, a 20-year industry veteran and founder of consultancy Analytical-Solution.

But Gentry is dubious that a two-day seminar will make a difference to business leaders who continue to fly by instinct.

"Do we need to get rid of the prima donnas who think they know better than the data? Yes," she said in a phone interview.

Big data advocates from the technology sector have been busy, too. IBM's Big Data University, for example, has spent the past year building partnerships with Fordham University, Yale University, Northwestern University, Michigan State University, University of Montana and others. Significantly, these efforts to develop big data analytics curriculums have involved, primarily, the business schools.

The MIT Sloan School of Management is offering a new executive education program, Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler, launched in March. "Many managers undervalue the worth of data, but really it is like money in your bank account and you should be getting a return on it," Professor 'Sandy' Pentland, who directs MIT's media lab entrepreneurship program and also teaches the two-day session, said in a statement. "This program will show managers how to capture the benefits of data such as creating better customer analytics or capturing real-time consumer preferences."

Meanwhile, at North Carolina State University, which launched what might have been the nation's first advanced degree program in analytics in 2007, the business school is working big data and big analytics into its curriculum.

Other business schools with graduate programs include The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, New York University's Stern School of Business, the Dearborn College of Business at the University of Michigan, and Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

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