Barbara Wixom is an associate professor at University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and has also taken on a two-year visiting scholar role at MIT’s Center for IS Research. Far from buried in the academic side of analytics, Wixom is also a program chair of the BI Congress, a regular educational collaborative event that seeks to “align academia and practice” of business intelligence. Held in conjunction with the 2012 International Conference on Information Systems this December in Orlando, Fla., the BI Congress this year carries the theme, “Driving Innovation through Big Data Analytics.” In an interview with Information Management, Wixom discussed the evolving program for the Congress, the growing responsibility shown by vendors and where U.S. universities stand in closing the skills gap for business data analysts and more niche positions like data scientist. There’s no shortage of big data talk. Tell me some of the thought behind its role in academia and at this year’s event.

Wixom: What we’re finding this year is, a) the emphasis has moved toward big data in the realm of delivering value to data, and b) to that effect, a lot of the topics and content areas are going to be exploring what research is already being done – some faculty is already on this topic – as well as some ideas on how big data should specifically be integrated into curriculum, like should there be actual classes directed on big data, and so on. The last time we ran our survey, we found very few degree programs devoted toward analytics. This was the end of 2010, and what was happening at that time is that schools were creating courses on business intelligence or analytics. Now, we’re seeing this huge influx of actual programs, entire degrees and certificates in business analytics. We’re going to be featuring the programs at the BI Congress and showing schools that are getting in this space with programs and offering advice to others on how they should proceed.

And what has the response been from the academic field to the big data theme?

The response has been huge. We don’t want it to become too huge because it’s a Congress rather than just a larger conference. It’s intended to inspire interaction and sharing. Want to keep it at an intimate size to exchange and collaborate. We hope for an audience of about 150, which we’ll definitely achieve, and that’s about the same as in past. But what changes are the ideas that come out of the Congress. Last time, we had an article that came out about our survey and findings. This year, we’re discussing a full journal of articles … And there are different groups engaged. We have faculty engaged from more of that technical background and some with more of a behavioral background. It’s at about half and half. We’ve always tried to have that mix, but now I think we’ve covered the fields of study.

So the degree programs are more than window dressing or just reorganizing a few classes to hit on a hot employment area?

It’s not window dressing, but it’s about integration and reframing. Because at the end of the day, big data skills already exist. The problem is the roles – the analyst role, the data scientist role –require so many diverse capabilities that … exist in different schools and different types of classes. The change is not that faculty is changing or courses, but they’re being packaged and framed better to actually create the types of students needed to fill the work roles. A great example is Indiana [University]. When they created one of the first analytics programs, their IT department held a decision support group and a data management group and an IT group that were all offering classes in silos. When the faculty came together, they created some magic in delivering analytics. It’s hard for schools because we’re not structured to work together, so it’s organizationally challenging. The fact that they’re even happening is significant.

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The last time we talked, you brought up the disconnect between the business need for graduates who are experienced with software and hardware, and the reluctance by vendors to donate solutions. There was also a shortage of examples of teaching with real BI or data sets. But now you said you see that changing?

Last time we held the Congress, vendors were just starting up free resources, like IBM and SAS. We’ve got vendors this year at the Congress with established resources that we can push out for our colleagues. And that’s a big deal. We are now working with very strong packaged software experiences we can offer our students for free. And it’s more of a range, Tableau, MicroStrategy, NetApp, more of the analytics space than just the hardware and storage. It shows in our teaching tracks, too. More research papers being submitted … but this year we actually had academics submit several dozen pages of pedagogy. Academics are used to papers, but not as much with pedagogical tools. Some of them were vendor oriented, like how one used Teradata in their class, and we’ll have some awards around cool pedagogy and teaching panels around programs that have done a really nice job in establishing themselves.

The glaring numbers out of papers and surveys from the last BI Congress centered on the IT skills gap with university graduates. How has that changed over the last year or two?

These are the first steps, and there are two gaps. The first is the data scientist gap, and many of these schools are doing a good job in preparing students to close that gap, which is smaller. There are just fewer of these positions needed. We have incredible computer science and math programs out there who frankly are thrilled with that excitement around the quantitative bent toward data jobs. I personally worry still about the gap with the business analyst side. If you look at those McKinsey numbers, where it’s 1.5 million managers needed for evidence-based decision-making, I feel like we still have a long way to go. And that’s a business school problem, more than IT. In the IT field, we’re doing a great job of creating a core of business analytics programs and starting to spread that through the university.

But to close that truly huge gap, it’s going to take an effort across the school. As one of the analytics directors at [University of Virginia], we’ve done what most traditional schools have also done with offering courses, but what we’re doing now is going back and revising curriculum across the business school. Luckily, we have support from our dean and faculty, and you need that. The future for this businessperson is inherently different than the gut-based graduate who has been prevalent in the past. To do that, we have to go through our prerequisites even and look at how we can incorporate more of these [data-based decision] capabilities across the whole program. That’s what I think needs to happen to cover that skills gap.