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Wharton’s Big Bet On The Analytics Boom

The Wharton School is placing a big bet on business analytics

For what seems like forever, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania’s has been trying to convey the fact that it’s far more than a finance school. While it’s long been true that the finance faculty at Wharton is second to none, the school can rightly boast some of the best professors in the world in nearly every business discipline.

It didn’t help, of course, that President Trump has famously noted that he is a proud graduate of the Wharton School of Finance. But in the past three years, the school has been betting big on another booming area of business: data analytics. Yet, unlike many schools which have launched specialty master’s programs in the field, Wharton has chosen a different direction. It is to infuse both its undergraduate and graduate curriculums with a heavy dose of analytics.

“Our dean is pushing all the chips behind data analytics,” says Eric Bradlow, faculty director and co-founder of Wharton’s Customer Analytics Initiative. “We have chosen to make it one of our pillars. And our dean has not taken the shortest path to the dollar but one that is consistent with our brand in the long-term. We want to be on the Mount Rushmore with finance and entrepreneurship and marketing. We are not looking to kick off anyone from Mount Rushmore, but we think analytics is as important as any other business discipline today.”

WHARTON HAS CHOSEN NOT TO OFFER A MASTER’S IN BUSINESS ANALYTICS. HERE’S WHY

Wharton professor Eric Bradlow

Wharton’s decision not to offer a specialized master’s in the field has been a conscious choice, says Bradlow, a passionate advocate for the importance of business analytics. “Let’s take the following two facts: Do we agree that there are a significant number of MBAs who graduate each year? Yes. And given the number of analytics degrees, there also are lots of people who are graduating from those degree programs.

“But here is what companies want,” he adds. “They want people at the intersection. Companies tell us the secret sauce is that they want people with business knowledge who understand analytics. That is why Wharton has chosen to integrate it into the mother ship. That is the way we run it. I am not going to say we will never have a master’s in analytics. But for now, I believe Wharton has chosen the right positioning for Wharton. We want business leaders who know analytics. That is our positioning. It is entirely consistent with our brand as an emperical school.”

The focus on data analytics, a natural given the fact that Wharton is one of the few business schools with its own statistics department, has resulted in a wave of innovation at the school. Bradlow says that 30 to 40 new courses in analytics have now been developed by Wharton faculty, and as many as a third to half of Wharton’s faculty have what Bradlow calls “at least one foot planted in data analytics,” with some 50 full-time professors in the field.

A PREDICTION THAT ANALYTICS WILL BE THE MOST POPULAR MAJOR AT WHARTON IN THREE YEARS

“There has been a miraculous amount of innovation,” he says. “Faculty members are coming up with new courses. The courses come in healthcare, finance, marketing. All of those departments have created and submitted courses for the majors. No department wants to be left behind. We have enough scale that we can hire people with analytical skills in the disciplinary departments as well and they’ve all come together to create this wave of innovation. Everyone wants part of the analytics pie. Everyone wants to be part of this big massive train that is leaving the station.”

There are now majors in analytics in both the undergraduate and MBA programs, with experiential learning assignments, a five-day executive education offering in analytics, an online MOOC specialization in the field now taken by more than 100,000 people, a wealth of free online resources for students and alumni, and dozens of not-for-credit workshops and seminars for students. In the past year, says Bradlow, his center boasts 10,000 student contact points with students from all across the University of Pennsylvania. “They not only come but if we had a 1,000 person auditorium we could fill it,” says Bradlow.

Though this is only the second year that Wharton undergrads can major in analytics, some 20% of the students now pick that major, twice as many as the first year. “When we launched major two years ago, I predicted that within five years, we would be the number one major with over 50% of the student population majoring in analytics. You are going to see this beautiful synergy between finance and analytics or marketing and analytics.”

NOT A FAD: ‘I HAVE BEEN DOING THIS FOR 22 YEARS AND I HAVE NEVER SEEN HIGHER DEMAND’

Behind the demand, of course, is the explosion in data and the business need to effectively use data for better decision making. “I’ve got to believe that companies are asking students about their experience in analytics today. My students tell me that when they go for job interviews at McKinsey or Amazon, they ask about an experience at Wharton that has shaped how they think about things. Increasingly, it’s an experience in smartly using data. There will be a cement ceiling sitting on top of you if you don’t have an understanding of data analytics today.”

Bradlow, who builds mathematical models for new data, says the demand for these skills is not a fad. “I have been doing this for 22 years and I have never seen higher demand. If you think about what has generated the revolution, it’s the use of technology in everything we do. Technology has changed business. The unmeasurable is now measurable, and that is what business analytics is all about. It is about taking data and turning it into business intelligence. And the Internet of things will lead to an even greater need for people’s understanding of data.”

When Bradlow co-founded the analytics center ten years ago, the school first called it the Wharton Interactive Media Intitiative, largely because the transition to digital for media became a preoccupation for many companies. “Companies came to us needing help with the explosion in data and on 1/11/11 we changed the name to the Customer Analytics Initiative and began working with companies across industry verticals from nonprofits like the American Red Cross to StubHub and Mars candy. Our demand exploded after seven years at the center.”