Why Big Data Is an Increasingly Big Deal in Colleges

Students who can make sense out of Big Data stand to do very well.

Not too long ago, I announced a pretty significant career change. Yes, I’m returning to academia to teach at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

I could not have taught at an institution clinging to the past. Fortunately, that doesn’t apply here. It’s clear to me that ASU is one of an increasing number of colleges and universities that recognizes the importance of data, analytics, and data science.

Talking heads like me have been aware of this trend for a few years now. Still, it’s interesting to hear and read the perspectives of current students on the matter. For instance, current UNC-Chapel Hill student Jeff Duresky wrote an interesting post on how some universities are moving from theory to practice. That is, his classes are moving beyond the hype of Big Data. Students are actually operationalizing new data sources in the classroom through sophisticated tools such as JMP. They are working on both real-world and fictional datasets. In some cases, they are acquiring valuable professional experience on corporate projects. In so doing, they are complementing their academic underpinnings and making themselves considerably more employable.

Why are colleges teaching Big Data now?

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to understand why progressive schools are formalizing data-oriented programs.

Let’s start with the premise that one of the primary purposes of college is to enable students to land well-paying and hopefully meaningful jobs. Along these lines, I’m hard-pressed to think of hotter areas these days than analytics and data science, but don’t believe me. Management consulting firm McKinsey predicts a severe “shortage of talent necessary for organizations to take advantage of Big Data.” By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills…with the know-how to use the analysis of Big Data to make effective decisions.”

Money matters, but college should be about more than just landing a lucrative job upon graduation.

Make no mistake: students who can make sense out of Big Data stand to do well. In the process, they can pay back their college loans relatively quickly. Don’t get me wrong, though: college should be about more than just landing a lucrative job upon graduation. Still, this remains a critical point.

I am reminded here of something that happened to me a few months ago, I was signing books after giving a keynote in San Diego. An adjunct professor approached me and, as I was signing his copy of The Visual Organization, he asked me how he could get his smartphone-addicted and occasionally apathetic students more interested in data-related topics. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind: Show them starting salary figures of analysts and other data types. What’s more, look at the numbers and types of companies demanding graduates who can make sense out of Big Data.

He smiled at my response and I have little doubt that he did just that.

Simon Says

Unlike a certain demagogue running for president, I am not certain of everything. I don’t know all of the answers, nor can I predict the future. I can, however, say two things without fear of accurate contradiction. First, Big Data has arrived. Second, as I have said many times, all companies are tech companies. Some just haven’t realized it yet.

As I start my own academic career (again), I think about the lessons I have learned in industry as they relate to future college graduates. It is simply incumbent upon institutions of higher learning to not only prepare students for today’s business environment, but for tomorrow’s.

Peering into the future, it’s obvious that the majority of white-collar jobs will require at least some facility with all things data. I just don’t see a future in which an organization will able to hide “data-challenged” folks or dataphobes. The schools most likely to succeed in this new era understand this new reality and are modifying their curricula accordingly.

Originally published on The Huffington Post. Click here to read it there.

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