As the Mall of America installed free Wi-Fi in 2015, its top technology executive realized the system would cast off lots of information about smartphone-toting shoppers, including where they went and how quickly.
The problem was how to understand it.
A colleague suggested contacting the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management for some ideas. It turned out Carlson students were the answer.
“Companies have more data than they know what do with,” said Srilata Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School. “That’s where our students come in.”
Facing declining demand in its main MBA program, the state’s biggest business school a few years ago developed master’s programs in several technology specialties, including analyzing data. Now in its fifth year, the MSBA — or master of science in business analytics — program has grown rapidly to enroll the second-most students in the school after the main MBA program.
Every spring semester, students in the program consult on real-life projects pitched by businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. That’s how students in 2016 showed the Mall of America how to spot patterns in shoppers’ movements, which led MOA to make changes in signage, leasing deals and operations at its amusement park.
Since then, students have helped Hennepin County officials discover when low-income residents are in danger of being evicted from their homes, Land O’Lakes use its test fields more productively and Sun Country Airlines sell more tickets to its most frequent fliers.
Last month, the Carlson analytics students started work on this year’s projects, about 20 in all. HousingLink, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing, asked for software that predicts how policy changes will affect demand for lower-cost apartments. The Mall of America asked for an app that lets on-duty managers match staffing with the volume of people in the mall.
Janette Smrcka, information technology director at the mall, said she felt lucky Carlson accepted the request. As the MSBA program’s size and reputation has grown, more companies want help from the students. “Things are a little more competitive now,” Smrcka said.
For decades, data analysis was the province of accounting and finance departments. About 30 years ago, the introduction of PC-based spreadsheet programs spread data analysis to nearly everyone. Today, analytics students at Carlson and other schools are learning to understand and use huge sets of data and write programs that glean new information from them.
“If you can solve the problem with Excel, it can be done by other students,” Ellen Trader, director of the MSBA program, said referring to Microsoft’s ubiquitous spreadsheet program. “If you have a problem that needs programming skills, this is the group.”
Teaching such skills is a growth business. More than 300 U.S. colleges offer data science as a major for undergraduates, up from a relative handful just a decade ago. At the University of California, Berkeley, a course called Foundations of Data Science attracted nearly 1,300 students from across 100 majors last fall, the Wall Street Journal reported.
At the graduate level, the Carlson School got a jump on the wave in part because of its long history in teaching management of information systems. Its master’s program in that specialization is ranked one of the top five in the country by U.S. News & World Report.
Meanwhile, enrollment has declined at business schools for several years. Some schools exited the field; the University of Iowa will end its full-time MBA program this spring. At Carlson, the number of students in full-time and part-time MBA programs is 20 percent lower this academic year than in 2014-2015.
In part, that’s due to a decade without a recession in the U.S.; business schools tend to attract more students in economic downturns as laid-off workers retrain themselves. As well, business schools in other countries have improved, retaining students who used to flock to U.S. graduate programs.
The Carlson School countered such pressures in several ways. It recruited more veterans, who now account for about 20 percent of students in the full-time MBA program. It created several dual-degree programs, such as an MD-MBA for aspiring leaders in health settings. And it introduced five one-year specialty master’s programs, including the one in analytics.
“All of this has kept us pretty strong,” Zaheer said. “But if you are looking for growth, if you are looking for where graduate management education is headed, it’s toward these one-year master’s specialist programs. We’ve been at the forefront of that, particularly in the data-analytics space, where demand is absolutely phenomenal.”
In its fifth year, Carlson’s business-analytics program has 137 students. Tuition is around $43,000 for Minnesotans and just over $60,000 for everyone else.
Dhivya Nagasubramanian decided to enroll for a Carlson MSBA when, after years working as a consultant in North Carolina for firms like Bank of America and IBM — an analytics project she was on at TIAA-CREF reaped 25,000 new customers for the company.
“That really triggered my interest in this,” she said.
Getting a job with a Carlson MSBA has been a sure thing. In each year of the program so far, all of the MBSA students have been hired within three months of completion.
For some, it’s even quicker: Henrik Kowalkowski, a St. Olaf graduate who worked in IT at a Bloomington firm before enrolling for the Carlson MSBA last summer, has already been hired by UnitedHealth Group.
Asked why he decided to study analytics, he said, “I was looking to do something more advanced.”
Land O’Lakes hired two Carlson analytics students after first asking a team in the program to solve a problem in its WinField United services business for farmers. The firm owns more than 200 fields, which it calls “answer plots,” to test and showcase its seeds. But too often the company heard complaints from farmers that seeds didn’t perform as well in their fields as they did in the answer plots near them.
“Farmers were quite upset,” said Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer of Land O’Lakes. After he and a company agronomist took the problem to Carlson, the students created a test by gathering climate, soil and topography information for every field in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The data illuminated differences that affected yields even in fields that were near each other.
“That was an aha moment for us,” Bekele said. Since then, WinField United built a national database of field characteristics. Today, it is able to offer comparisons on seed yields from answer plots that most resemble a customer’s field, even if those plots are far away.
Each line of business at Land O’Lakes has since formed teams of data analysts. This spring, its Purina animal-nutrition unit used Carlson students to mine social media for perceptions about its professional line of feeds for horses, cattle and even honeybees.
When Carlson’s Trader met last week with the five students working on the Purina project, she asked about the progress of the software’s language recognition. Ankur Tomar, who studied electrical engineering in India before enrolling at Carlson, used a whiteboard to diagram how words are given values based on traits Purina executives are seeking, such as how positively a consumer views the company’s products.
The customer data is anonymous, the team told Trader as they discussed the value of information vs. the privacy of the people who provided it. Such discussions come up repeatedly in the Carlson analytics courses.
“We talk about security issues and ethics throughout the year,” Trader said.
In another meeting, Trader asked students working on HousingLink’s project how long it would take to write code. “How quickly can you get to what’s predictive?” she asked.
Robert Lu, who went to college in Beijing and worked for some major U.S. consulting firms there, replied, “That should be very quick.”
The Carlson School is now developing an executive education program in business analytics. It’s also building custom programs for companies on analytics and other new technologies in business.
One firm committed to sending several thousand executives and managers through such a course, Zaheer, the school’s dean, said.
Just learning the lingo will be important for many executives. “They’re not writing the algorithms, but they have to understand what can be done,” Zaheer said.