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Haas-Accenture Partnership Creates New Big Data Curriculum

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From financial services to retail to utilities, companies in an ever-increasing range of industries are exploring and implementing big data and analytics. To equip its MBAs with the tools they need to understand how data science stands to transform business, the Haas School at the University of California at Berkeley has forged a new partnership with global management consulting, technology and outsourcing company Accenture. Together, they have launched a multi-phase initiative designed to position big data squarely within the Haas curriculum.

“Today, every company is a technology company, every company is a software company, every company is a data company,” says Gregory La Blanc, a finance and technology lecturer at Haas. “To be successful, our students need to know how to navigate the strategic landscape in a world filled with all this data.”

La Blanc has been teaching at Haas for 10 years, including a course called Data and Decisions that every Haas MBA takes when he or she first arrives on campus. “It’s kind of a combination of statistics, critical thinking, inference, persuasion and quantitative reasoning all wrapped up in one,” he explains, adding that it was created about five years ago as an improvement on traditional statistics.

Haas-Accenture partnership
Gregory La Blanc

“We figured that statistics the way it is traditionally taught doesn’t really get the job done,” he says. “It’s very formula-driven, mechanical, repetitive—and it wasn’t giving business students the ability to think clearly, make good decisions, know when to believe things, how to ask questions, how to design things and develop hypotheses.”

Data and Decisions tackles how to solve business problems using standard technology, sampling and experimentation. “But the rise of big data allows us to do so much more,” explains LeBlanc. Indeed, understanding how to access and analyze big data—whether it’s complex files of 20 terabytes or more, massive amounts of information gathered from social networks or unstructured data such as video and voice—promises to be one of the most significant transformations in business since the Industrial Revolution, he says.

“We wanted students to learn about these new technologies that people are using and to think very deeply about the strategic implications—how do you monetize it, how do you design a business strategy around it,” La Blanc says.

Haas-Accenture Partnership Is Born
And so this past spring, La Blanc kicked off the first phase of a partnership between Haas and Accenture to develop a curriculum around big data, teaching a new course called Data Science/Data Strategy.

“The class was trying to do a lot of things,” La Blanc explains. For starters, it was intended to provide an introduction to data science methodologies and techniques—from decision trees and logistical regression to nearest-neighbor clustering. That said, the idea was not to turn the MBA students into data scientists themselves. “We even had everyone do things in Excel because we didn’t want them to have to learn a new language,” he says.

After an intro to data science fundamentals, the course’s focus shifted to strategy, specifically how to develop strategy around data. And then it was time to hear from people from industry through a lecture series that included executives from dozens of companies. “We had a lot of people come in from all sorts of companies—GE, Wells Fargo, UPS, Facebook, Cloudera, Tamr and others—to talk about what they think is happening in this space.”

Accenture presented a perfect partner, La Blanc says, noting that the consulting firm has been making inroads in data analytics work and building a practice around understanding the intersection between data science and business strategy. Beyond providing a sounding board as La Blanc and colleagues began to craft the curriculum for the new course, Accenture also supported the lecture series, including helping secure some of the speakers.

But Accenture’s most important contribution to the class was exposing students to what they are doing with clients, La Blanc says. In April, Accenture welcomed the students in the class to its San Jose Technology Lab, where they got to see live demonstrations highlighting current analytics research and engage in in-depth conversations with Accenture executives.

“Accenture believes that the best way to demystify a typical data-driven consulting engagement is to go through the process of working with clients and data scientists to achieve desired solutions and outcomes,” says Prith Banerjee, managing director of global technology research and development at Accenture. “Data science projects can be considered a ‘black box’ for business managers and non-technical strategists, but this exercise empowers students to feel comfortable making impactful data-driven decisions and thereby help their future organizations do the same.”

Second New Course Debuts This Fall
As the second phase of the Haas-Accenture partnership around big data, Haas will offer another new course, Applied Data Analytics, this fall. Also developed in partnership with Accenture, this course will be taught by Haas Lecturer Dave Rochlin and Thomas Lee, a visiting assistant professor and research scientist.

Haas@Work Executive Director Dave Rochlin
Haas@Work Executive Director Dave Rochlin

“We felt like we really want to give students an opportunity to delve in deeper and do project-based work,” says Rochlin, who also serves as executive director of Haas@Work, a program that sends Haas MBA students to global firms to research business challenges. “With Accenture, we’ve been examining how to put together a project-based course that lets students work on real-time, urgent, client-based challenges.”

“The usual processing methods don’t work with these data sets and the only way for MBAs to really learn how to handle big data is to actually work with it, and to interact with student engineers and data scientists,” La Blanc says. “This relationship with Accenture gives students that opportunity.”

The new course will be based on a “learning by doing” aspect that is central at Haas. “We are always looking at how we can create an appropriate ‘learn by doing’ environment,” Rochlin says. As part of the new course, Haas students will partner with students from the UC School of Information. Together these student teams will have access to Accenture data scientists, projects and clients and will work on projects in real time with real data. “They will go from trying to frame the problem to evaluating alternate ways to do the modeling, from examining what additional data needs to be obtained to how confident you can be based on the data you have,” Rochlin says.

In particular, Rochlin hopes the experience can help encourage students to take a more exploratory and diverse approach to working with big data. “A current approach in using data analytics is to find extremely narrow problems and use the data to check it,” he says. “The next generation is figuring out how to use big data even when you don’t know what question you should be asking.”

In the course they are devising for the fall, multiple teams will work on the same problem, La Blanc says. “We very much expect them to take different approaches and come up with different answers,” he adds.

Haas-Accenture Partnership Yields Mutual Benefits
Accenture has been interested both in finding partners they can collaborate with and learn from, but also in helping develop business school graduates who have the knowledge and skills to incorporate data analytics into their jobs and understand the value and power of that work, Rochlin says. “We started out talking about a very broad agenda and quickly realized there were a lot of overlaps between what they were interested in doing and what we were interested in doing,” he says.

“We see a marketplace need for analytically-oriented business leaders who are both able to make decisions grounded in data as well as rethink their organization’s business processes to fully realize the potential of emerging analytical approaches,” Banerjee says. Indeed, Accenture has partnered not only with Haas but also with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other schools in the hopes of building a pipeline of potential employees with these valuable skillsets.

“Through this initiative, we hope participating business school students will gain the experience of working together on an interdisciplinary team that uses data, visualization and critical thinking to establish business strategy, answer data-driven questions and achieve better business outcomes,” Banerjee continues.

Far from turning MBAs into data scientists, La Blanc hopes that the initiative will help Haas students better understand where their role ends and the role of data scientists begins. “Too often, MBA students graduate and are thrust into an engagement with a data scientist without knowing how to interact, how to ask the best questions,” he says. “This initiative, by providing a little bit of exposure to data analysis techniques, will give them authority to make decisions they are qualified to make,” he says. “Exposure to data scientists in the experiential classroom will help MBAs figure out their own strengths and weaknesses while learning to interact and manage teams.”

The Shape of Big Data Curriculum to Come
Beyond launching the new Data Analytics course this fall, La Blanc and Rochlin are already looking ahead toward the future of Haas’s big data curriculum. For starters, they plan to split the Data Science/Data Strategy course into two parts. “The speakers will all be split out into a separate speaker series, which will allow us to delve deeper into the data science,” La Blanc says. This deeper dive is facilitated in part by the fact that it is becoming increasingly easy for students to handle big data without having to learn new languages, he continues. “Because so many software programs today are so easy to learn—just extensions of Excel—the students don’t have to learn how to code.”

Rochlin, for his part, predicts that the line between poets and quants in business schools will grow increasingly blurred. “Some MBAs come into business school and embrace the science, while others consider themselves to be more strategy-focused,” he says. “But moving forward, that artificial division is not going to stand up.”

In time, specific classes in data strategy and data science will no longer be required because they will be part of every class, La Blanc predicts. “Ten years from now you won’t be able to talk about finance/marketing/organizational behavior without it being evidence-based finance/marketing/organizational behavior,” he says. “Data will be an integral part of every course. Everything will be based on data.”

But for now, La Blanc and Rochlin, together with partners at Accenture, are excited to roll out Haas’s new big data curriculum.

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