Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What does "business analytics" mean in academia?

But what exactly does this mean?
In the recent ISIS conference, I organized and moderated a panel called "Business Analytics and Big Data: How it affects Business School Research and Teaching". The goal was to tackle the ambiguity in the terms "Business Analytics" and "Big Data" in the context of business school research and teaching. I opened with a few points:

  1. Some research b-schools are posting job ads for tenure-track faculty in "Business Analytics" (e.g., University of Maryland; Google "professor business analytics position" for plenty more). What does this mean? what is supposed to be the background of these candidates and where are they supposed to publish to get promoted? ("The Journal of Business Analytics"?)
  2. A recent special issue of the top scholarly journal Management Science was devoted to "Business Analytics". What types of submissions fall under this label? what types do not?
  3. Many new "Business Analytics" programs have been springing up in business schools worldwide. What is new about their offerings? 

Panelists Anitesh, Ram and David - photo courtesy of Ravi Bapna
The panelist were a mix of academics (Prof Anitesh Barua from UT Austin and Prof Ram Chellapah from Emory University) and industry (Dr. David Hardoon, SAS Singapore). The audience was also a mixed crowd of academics mostly from MIS departments (in business schools) and industry experts from companies such as IBM and Deloitte.

The discussion took various twists and turns with heavy audience discussion. Here are several issues that emerged from the discussion:

  • Is there any meaning to BA in academia or is it just the use of analytics (=data tools) within a business context? Some industry folks said that BA is only meaningful within a business context, not research wise.
  • Is BA just a fancier name for statisticians in a business school or does it convey a different type of statistician? (similar to the adoption of "operations management" (OM) by many operation research (OR) academics)
  • The academics on the panel made the point that BA has been changing the flavor of research in terms of adding a discovery/exploratory dimension that does not typically exist in social science and IS research. Rather than only theorize-then-test-with-data, data are now explored in further detail using tools such as visualization and micro-level models. The main concern, however, was that it is still very difficult to publish such research in top journals.
  • With respect to "what constitutes a BA research article", Prof. Ravi Bapna said "it's difficult to specify what papers are BA, but it is easy to spot what is not BA".
  • While machine learning and data mining have been around for some good time, and the methods have not really changed, the application of both within a business context has become more popular due to friendlier software and stronger computing power. These new practices are therefore now an important core in MBA and other business programs. 
  • One type of b-school program that seems to lag behind on the BA front is the PhD program. Are we equipping our PhD students with abilities to deal with and take advantage of large datasets for developing theory? Are PhD programs revising their curriculum to include big data technologies and machine learning capabilities as required core courses?
Some participants claimed that BA is just another buzzword that will go away after some time. So we need not worry about defining it or demystifying it. After all, the software vendors coin such terms, create a buzz, and finally the buzz moves on. Whether this is the case with BA or with Big Data is yet to be seen. In the meanwhile, we should ponder whether we are really doing something new in our research, and if so, pinpoint to what exactly it is and how to formulate it as requirements for a new era of researchers.
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