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There are two new programs teaching students how to mine data and use that information to make business decisions.James Thew

Evan Garmaise describes himself as a bit of a gearhead and a numbers guy who's interested in management. He says it was hard to find a role that combines his talents, despite his computer science degree and MBA. So the 32-year-old analyst was excited to spot an ad for a program that provides training in both management and data analytics.

He's not the only one. Analytics is a hot topic, thanks in part to the rise of big data. That's the term used to describe the quantity and variety of data companies can now mine – everything from sales transaction data, to data from social networks, to information from equipment sensors. Companies inundated with big data are clamouring for ways to make use of it, but to do so, they need to understand the data first.

The trouble is, to mine data successfully, you need people who understand numbers and business. Neither skill set on its own fits the bill. There has been a dearth of Canadian masters-level programs that provide both perspectives, until now.

Last year, York University's Schulich School of Business introduced a master of science in business analytics program. This year, Queen's University in Kingston followed suit with its master of management analytics.

Peter Husar, a partner at Deloitte and leader of the firm's analytics financial services division, welcomes them. He says there's rising demand for people who can leverage analytics to create business value. As just one example, retailer Macy's uses analytics to optimize pricing in its stores weekly, to determine what merchandise to mark down and by how much, and to maximize sales and profit.

While there are statisticians and economists who can crunch numbers, they often don't have the necessary business savvy and insight to make appropriate recommendations based on their results. That led Mr. Husar to reach out to Murat Kristal, associate professor of operations management and information systems at Schulich.

Prof. Kristal, too, saw a real need for these skills. In his research among Canadian businesses, he discovered that although they had a lot of transactional data such as sales information, they had no one to analyze it. "All they have is a BI [business intelligence] tool that gives means or weekly stats," he said. "Nothing they can act on. And what I started to see is a lot of people designating themselves as capable of doing business analytics, but they can barely add two and two together."

When he proposed the program to the Schulich's dean's advisory committee a year ago, he cited the movie Moneyball, in which Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane analyzed what had been disregarded player stats to find undervalued players to rebuild his cash-strapped team.

"Do you remember how they literally changed the game by using numbers and statistics?" Prof. Kristal said he asked the committee. "That's what we want to do with this program. We want to use numbers and statistics in operations research to change the competitive landscape."

It's a strategy that companies in virtually all industries are embracing. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. uses analytics to predict guest requirements and optimize its marketing. Inc. uses it to suggest books a customer might enjoy, based on previous purchases. General Electric Co. uses it to predict possible failures in its jet engines based on sensor data.

The committee loved the idea, and by May 15, 2012, the school was advertising for students, with a June 15 cutoff. Even with that short lead time, four students were accepted, including Mr. Garmaise.

Upon their graduation in June, one student plans to pursue doctoral studies in business analytics. Deloitte's Mr. Husar hired Mr. Garmaise as a senior consultant in his analytics consulting group. The other two are joining analytics software market leader SAS Institute, which has assisted Prof. Kristal by helping to design the program curriculum.

In existing programs, almost 100 per cent of graduates are being hired at graduation, at pay rates higher than that of MBAs. In fact, many of this year's 80 graduates of North Carolina State's analytics program are juggling multiple offers, at salaries over $80,000, SAS chief executive officer Jim Goodnight said.

At Queen's University, Yuri Levin, professor of management science and operations management, has received more than 250 applications for the 45 slots available in September. "It's a very applied program we hope to deliver with close ties to industry," Prof. Levin says.

But the program won't just be about number-crunching, he says. "The key challenge for people with technical skills is working with management. People have to understand the business, and to communicate effectively with non-technical people."

Special to The Globe and Mail