by Thor Olavsrud

Universities Closing Big Data Talent Gap But Need Real Data

Apr 30, 20135 mins
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Higher education is stepping up its efforts to teach big data analytics and business intelligence, but professors say they need businesses that depend on data to work with them to provide students with real data and real business problems to solve.

Any discussion about the challenges of big data will eventually come to the talent gap—the demand for people with big data analytics skills is expected to dramatically outpace supply over the next several years.

Universities are moving to address the need, says Barb Wixom, associate professor of Commerce at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, but they need businesses to work with them if their efforts are to bear fruit.

“What faculty are looking for today is access to real, big data sets,” says Wixom, author of the 2013 State of Business Intelligence survey conducted on behalf of the Business Intelligence Congress and sponsored by the Teradata University Network. “They want to show students the impact of the data explosion, demonstrate the linkage between data and business outcomes and teach exactly how to achieve those outcomes.”

Wixom is also a research affiliate at the Center for Information Systems Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

According to a 2011 paper on big data by McKinsey & Company, by 2018 the U.S. alone is likely to face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the knowledge to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

More Universities Offer Analytics Degrees

Universities have begun stepping up to do their part to fill that gap, Wixom says.

“The most exciting finding we had is that universities are absolutely stepping up in offering many more programs around analytics and business intelligence,” she says. “In 2007, when we did our first study, there were only a dozen universities that offered any programs around analytics. This time we had 131 that were offering actual degrees in analytics or business analytics.”

“We’re finding that the biggest take rates in analytics are in the business disciplines like marketing and finance,” she adds.

But Wixom also notes that simply having the degrees is not enough.

Organizations Need to Engage Students With Real Data

“The next step is engaging organizations,” she says. “The recruiters are saying that students are still not coming out with enough real-world experience. Over the last three to five years, we’ve been really working with the vendors to bring modern tools into the classroom. And we’ve succeeded. What we’re still missing is the connection to the business and the organizational context.”

Professors who responded to the Business Intelligence Congress survey said their top three challenges when teaching are the following:

  • Access to large data sets (45 percent)
  • Students with the prerequisite skills (39 percent)
  • Qualified or available faculty (35 percent)

On the other hand, one-third of employer practitioners who responded said their top challenge was overall lack of experience. Other challenges included insufficient business skills (26 percent), insufficient technical skills and a general lack of candidates (both at 22 percent).

“We need organizations to share their business problems so we know what we should be teaching,” Wixom says. “Until that happens in a strong way, we still aren’t going to be able to deliver students who can start off running as they begin their careers.”

“Frankly, accessing big data sets is not the problem,” she adds. “Anybody can go to and grab a big data set. A data set is not enough to teach with. You need a data set packaged with pedagogical resources as well as business problems for students to solve with that data.”

Organizations are beginning to step up to the plate through academic alliances like the Teradata University Network, which currently includes more than 3,400 faculty, more than 1,600 universities in 95 countries and thousands of users. But Wixom says academics need more companies to step forward.

“If you’re in an industry where you need data, you need to be engaging with universities,” she says. “I think companies in general need to be more engaged.”

Universities, she says, need organizations that will send analytics professionals to appear as speakers, provide sanitized data sets and business problems and offer internships that provide students with the experience they need.

“We are expanding our reach to include more corporate partners to broaden our coverage in marketing and analytics,” says Ramesh Sharda, executive director, Teradata University Network and director of the PhD in Business for Executives program. “We are expanding our scope to be able to support analytics coverage for marketing and computer science colleagues. We are constantly adding new content from faculty members who share their knowledge and coursework.”

“Through the supporting materials made available by corporations and by faculty colleagues, such as real case studies, software, data sets, videos and other tools, we now have a large pool of students around the world who are learning why analytics should be used, how it is used, and how the strategy and technology mix together,” Sharda adds.

Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Thor at