Undergrads and businesses meet in business analytics program

Fisher College of Business is home to a business analytics cluster that’s a hit both with students and with companies who sponsor the program. Students get hands-on experience creating real-world business solutions and guidance from industry professionals, while companies are able to cultivate and recruit their future business analytics workforce.

Ralph Greco

Ralph Greco

The program, which draws students from majors throughout the university, is led by Ralph Greco, Director of the Business Analytics Initiative at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business. Greco, who has a BS and MS from Ohio State in industrial and systems engineering, took the helm in 2013 after five and a half years at IBM and a decade at Accenture. In addition to teaching classes in the business analytics cluster, he is also director of the Nationwide Center for Advanced Customer Insights at Fisher.

For students, the business analytics cluster provides an MBA-like experience at the undergrad level. Most of the classwork is project-based and done in groups of four, and assignments involve designing and developing solutions for challenges faced by real businesses.

Every year, Greco enlists companies to participate in the program as sponsors. In 2015-16, JP Morgan Chase, Lane Bryant, Saama, and Cardinal Health signed on to provide class projects, give lectures, mentor students, and provide insights to help Greco ensure the curriculum stays relevant. “Our sponsors tell us the skills we’re missing in our students,” Greco says.

“One of the items that came to us was our students needed to be better in finding or creating the data,” he gives as an example. “A lot of work in analytics is in finding the data as it exists in the corporate environment, cleansing the data, or creating the experiment that generates the data, but often in teaching we just hand student the data sets. Lane Bryant said, ‘That doesn’t really help us,’ so for a project for them, my students did some interesting data gathering. We did comparisons of a lot of online stores buying bras and panties for women. Guys got to go bra shopping online. It was kind of fun.”

Based on the feedback, Greco intends to work more data creation into the curriculum because, as he notes, “It’s great experience.”

Students find that their class projects and the presentations they’re required to give to the projects’ “clients” are great preparation for entering the data analytics market. “When the students go to interviews the conversation is, ‘Let’s talk about the projects you did,’” Greco says. “One student told me, ‘Two-thirds of my interview was about the work I did in your class.’”

The program emphasizes to students that the ultimate purpose of business analytics is to drive decision-making and generate value, however that is defined.

“Insights from the data create actions, and actions create value,” Greco says. “We try to teach the full process: We look at the data—large, small, whatever it is; we use a technique and get insights from that data; we use those insights to drive an action; and ultimately we’re going to have value —we’re going to increase revenue, or something like that.”

Students also learn the historical context in which business analytics exists.

“I teach the students that analytics is the new bacon,” Greco says, referring to the breakfast food’s ascension to “trendy” status among foodies. “It may be the current hot thing, but the idea of using insights from data and using those insights to make informed decisions has been done for centuries. What’s changed is the speed at which we can accomplish this, and the scale.”

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