Dr Kok-Leong Ong was part of the team that launched Australia’s first degree in business analytics and he brought his wealth of knowledge to La Trobe in March this year.
We asked him to talk us through why everyone is talking about big data, and what this means for people considering levelling up in a data and analytics career.
Can you give me a layman’s definition of business analytics?
Business analytics is basically a collection of different techniques you can use to analyse a large amount of data. Primarily we use technology as a means to churn through the huge volumes of data that organisations nowadays face. So, business analytics is about understanding what the business problem might be, and then finding a solution in or through the data.
We’re talking about ‘Big Data’ here which lots of people might have heard of – but they might not know what it means.
The term ‘Big Data’ brings up a first impression of lots and lots of data, but it really means more than the size or volume of data. It basically means complex data sets.
It’s very interesting to people or to businesses because you can get a lot of insights they can use to their competitive advantage, or to improve internal productivity. Because of the amount of data businesses have, they need knowledge to help them analyse the information.
So is this data being used predominantly by businesses for matters to do with profit and productivity?
The range of applications is huge. Say we’re talking about marketing, big data can tell businesses how to market to the customer, how to segment your customers so you can get them what they want. Personalisation is a key way to use it.
But increasingly, we’re looking at analytics being used in a variety of spaces – so in Australia for example, Border Protection uses analytics, so when you are at customs, or a parcel gets scanned, what happens is that in a few seconds your information is transmitted back to Canberra and there’s an program that analyses your profile to see if it’s safe for you or an item to enter Australia. They also use analytics to check if a particular shipping container contains goods that might be dangerous.
La Trobe looks at student data to find ways to help students and keep them enrolled in their courses. There’s a lot of applications nowadays.
In your own career, you started in IT and moved to business, which is an interesting career path. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, I started in computer science. I worked with a number of organisations – I started working for a German mobile company and I developed programs for what you would now call ‘Brick’ phones. Phones that are not smart at all.
Subsequently I was asked to help with customer relations management systems, in-house – that moved me from not just a technical role. I slowly moved from pure computer science to applying computer science to building software that would solve problems in the real world.
After that, I decided to do a PhD, and my PhD research looked at using data mining – one type of business analytics if you will – to solve business problems. From there, it was a logical progression to a business school.
Following on from that, what kind of career trajectory do you imagine for someone taking on a postgrad degree in business analytics?
At the moment, it’s huge. It’s really exploded in the last few years. If you look at the 2014 IAPA Salary survey, you can see there’s a shortage in people with skills in analytics and an understanding of what businesses need. If you were to do postgrad work in business analytics you would have a good chance of pursuing a good career in business analytics. Just recently news.com.au released an article about the salaries someone with this skill set could hope to gain and they’re high numbers in Australia.
Looking at trends developing worldwide, Asia isn’t on board with analytics yet but they’re starting to do so. Soon they’ll be on the bandwagon and there’ll be a shortage all over the world. I really think that there will be a lot of opportunities for graduates with these skills.
Practically speaking, when should people interested in this field be thinking about plugging into this shortage?
Get trained in business analytics now – the timing is perfect.
Say there’s an I.T student and a business student reading this who wants to get ahead of this trend, what would you recommend they do?
If you’re someone who has done an IT course or have IT work experience, when you are applying for the Master of Business Analytics, you should check out if you can get advanced credits so you can streamline your learning.
If you think you come from a relevant background, we can take that into consideration, and we will get you into those core analytics subjects.
But for any student wanting to pursue this, the way the course is designed is that it’s basically been scaffolded in a way to make sure that you have the basic foundation of skills.
What kind of things does a business analytics student learn on a day-to-day basis?
First thing is, they’ve got to understand the nature of data. They will find out where to source the data, the different formats that data comes in, how to collect it, how to process it.
Then they need to know how to clean data. Data comes in dirty, it’s not going to come in a nice format, so you have to learn how to format it for analysis.
Then you learn multiple techniques of data analysis – they will learn how to identify the significant parts of the data. They learn how to look at what is in there and how to turn it into a story that you can then tell the managers and executives what the data actually says. That’s the skill you really come away with when you get a Master’s of Business Analytics.
It sounds incredibly complex but also rich and exciting work for anyone whose brain is wired that way. We’re now looking at a generation who are digital natives, and they’re gaining their degrees in the next few years – do you think this generation already have a working understanding of business analytics, and big data in general?
I think they will have a greater understanding about why we need business analytics. Tech that they’re using daily, their smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, a lot of analytics is running behind the scenes.
If you are comfortable with technology, that’s going to help you in the business analytics course. For people who are tech focused, it’s just about learning the tools. The big leap in knowledge for students comes when we teach them how to connect their tech skills to the business problem.
How do you teach students to connect tech skills to a business problem? Is that through case studies?
We do some case studies, but mostly we teach this by connecting students with industry experts. We try to make sure 20% of the curriculum is taught by industry practitioners. That way they can talk to students about the kind of problems they encounter, how they go about solving them – they can share their experience.
We also have some partnerships with business analytical solution providers so we have access to enterprise software, and we connect students with clients so that by their final year they’ve already worked on real world problems. So they learn about the processes up front, in the course, rather than after graduation.
Do you have any other advice for anyone interested in this career?
Do you like crunching data? Do you like to investigate data to find out something people don’t know? Those are the first things to ask yourself.
If you do, consider the career prospects this Master’s will bring. Increasingly, I predict you’ll see every company on this bandwagon, saying ‘we need to do something because otherwise we’ll lose out.’ A lot more companies are going to want someone with these skills. You will find yourself in demand.