In an interview with Dr Wolfgang Garn we learn how Surrey Business School’s MSc Business Analytics programme is integrating passion, efficiency and cutting-edge technology, to drive business insight into the future.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
I have worked in industry using analytics for the last 20 years. I started off as a software developer and within a year I became a resource manager, coordinating several projects and creating innovative and next generation products. I worked on significant developments such as online shopping using your mobile, something that is quite common now but back then it was 20 years ahead of the market. At the same time, I was studying for my Master’s degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, doing my dissertation on Broadband Integrated Network Traffic Evaluation for the Galileo project.
I finished my studies and became a management scientist at Telekom Austria in the department of Operations Research, working on exciting projects such as network optimisations, transportation and market analysis. One of my major achievements was a nationwide transition strategy from a copper to a fibre network.
At the Defence Technology Centre (DTC), I worked on agent and decision support systems, which was funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). One of the outcomes enabled autonomous agents to evaluate and act on military effects using Artificial Intelligence (AI).
I also worked on transportation optimisations at Eurobios, gaining first-hand experience in developing business solutions for companies such as Serco, Biffa, Unilever, DHL and BP. I also founded my own company, Smartana, which offers SMART Analytics solutions and consulting services to businesses. Having an extensive practical knowledge of business analytics and continued close industry links enables me to teach students in a way that is relevant to real-world business.
What is business analytics? What do Business Analysts do?
Business analytics is a combination of data science and management science. First you “crunch” some data and then you use it to allow you to make business decisions.This is achieved by using the following three areas of analytics: descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics. Firstly, you explain the data – how many records, average value, and distribution – essentially descriptive statistics with visualisations. Then you identify essential factors to predict something, with more of a business focus. Typically this has an economic motivation, such as maximise the profit or minimise the cost; this is often driven by the demand. Therefore, we predict the demand and apply optimisations on issues such as transportation, product mix or inventory and have arrived at prescriptive analytics, which informs about potential business gains and how to obtain them.
How does Artificial Intelligence relate to business analytics?
Artificial Intelligence techniques, such as Genetic Algorithms and Simulated Annealing, are often used for optimisations when mathematical programmes cannot be used anymore. Optimisations are a major element in business analytics. Decision making is another part where AI techniques such as Bayesian Networks are used. AI techniques can be used to learn about customers, environments, processes and products. Some of these learning techniques are now known as Machine Learning.
In your opinion, what is the most exciting development currently taking place in the world of business analytics?
In the world of business analytics, we are helping to shape the future by applying cutting-edge technology to businesses, for example using quadcopters for delivery services, or recognising the structural damages of rooftops in combination with AI. I am currently working with quadcopters and augmented reality applications. Recently, we demonstrated augmented reality within one of the UK’s largest businesses.
Machine Learning is also a very hot topic in the world of business analytics currently; however, it’s more of a continuous development that started a long time ago. I consider it to be the golden age of those techniques. Machine Learning is a type of Artificial Intelligence that provides computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. It focuses on the development of computer programmes that can teach themselves to grow and change when exposed to new data.
Data visualisation is another exciting tool in the world of business analytics. It is the presentation of data in a pictorial or graphical format, which enables decision makers to see analytics presented visually, so they can grasp difficult concepts or identify new patterns.
What does studying MSc Business Analytics involve?
Fun, efficiency and passion drive our programme. Students have the opportunity to use Artificial Intelligence to improve a chess game, Game Theory to create games, and Computational Intelligence with Genetic Algorithms. They will also learn the power of visualisation from graphs, discover Virtual Reality, and gain insights from Data Mining and Machine Learning.
The programme’s main components are data analytics and business analytics. Students are taught to independently analyse data to provide business solutions to clients and help them with business decision making. In the first week of the programme, students benefit from a quantitative methods crash course to refresh their memory of essential mathematics. They then undertake eight modules, plus an applied dissertation that aims to be of practical use to a business. Optional modules allow students to further specialise in areas such as the economic, managerial or financial aspects of business analytics. Modules include:
- Data Analytics
- Supply Chain Analytics
- Econometrics I
- Machine Learning and Visualisations
- Principles of Accounting
- Foundations of Finance: Finance and Investments
- Supply Chain and Logistics Management
- Introduction to Marketing Analytics
- Econometrics II
- Business Process Management
- Innovation Management
- Investment Analysis
How is the programme relevant to contemporary business? Does it have real-world relevance?
All businesses have need for business analytics techniques, meaning that our graduates are highly sought after. We are living in a time of data abundance and hunger for insights and applications, which are things that Business Analysts deliver.
Our students are often recruited straight out of the programme, which is evidence of the domain’s relevance. The applied dissertation solves a business challenge, preferably for an actual business, which gives it strong real-world relevance and helps students to gain practical experience.
Is this programme linked to industry? What kind of companies are you linked with and support the programme? How does this translate into opportunities for students?
Our programme has strong links with companies, such as Royal Mail, Tilda Rice and IBM, who are always interested in collaborating with our students on projects. We also have frequent guest lecturers from leading supermarkets and financial institutions.
Businesses appreciate the value of our MSc Business Analytics students and have begun sponsoring some of them. We have an incredible network of companies who want our future Business Analysts, such as IBM, Expedia and British Airways.
What kind of student is suited to this programme?
Our students come from a very broad range of backgrounds. The optional modules mean that this programme is suitable for many different people, but especially recent graduates who have done a business management undergraduate degree and would now like to specialise in analytics; people who work in the tech industry and would like to gain management science experience; and business leaders and managers who desire to understand how data in organisations can be used to make informed decisions and improve efficiency.
Typically, people from two different industries are attracted to this programme due to the diversity of content; operations and finance. The programme allows students to specialise and develop their knowledge in whichever area is most relevant to them.
What does the future hold for graduates of the MSc Business Analytics in terms of future employment and career opportunities/further study?
Career opportunities for graduates are excellent, as proven by our high graduate employability rate. Business Analysts are in high demand and students are often recruited straight out of our programme. Graduates of this programme are well-equipped to pursue careers as consultants, researchers, managers, and analysts. One of my students recently told me that she sent out her CV and received 17 interview offers within two weeks, which is not unusual for graduates of this programme.
Students who want to pursue further study will also be in a prime position to do so, with a strong base of knowledge in business analytics. The MSc Business Analytics programme will provide a solid foundation for those considering continuing their academic development towards a PhD degree in the management disciplines.
Why study this programme here, at the University of Surrey?
I think that there are many reasons to study Business Analytics here at Surrey.
Surrey Business School
Our Business Analytics students benefit from being part of the pioneering Surrey Business School, renowned for delivering business-ready solutions and with an unrivalled reputation for placing business insight at the heart of everything they do.
We have an on-campus virtual reality lab, which can be used for visualisations. Students also have access to a wide range of software tools such as COGNOS and SQL Server for business intelligence for analytical processing; Apache Hadoop (map reduce) with Amazon’s Elastic Cloud or IBM’s Smart Cloud for distributed big data analytics; SAP for enterprise resource planning; R, SPSS and EViews for coding, statistics and forecasting; and Matlab for algorithms and programming.
The dissertation on this programme is based around solving a specific business challenge for a specific business. Students have access to real data from organisations in order to do this, enabling them to put their analytical skills to the test and gain vital practical experience.
Research expertise and strong industry links
The programme is focused on engaging with real-world business problems and enables students to learn from leading industry experts. We have strong links with companies such as IBM, Microsoft, British Airways, Expedia, Royal Mail and Tesco.
Students also benefit from small class sizes and an impressive staff to student ratio, giving them the support they need to succeed.
Graduates emerge from our programme with a strong base of knowledge in business analytics and because of this they are highly employable. We have an incredibly strong track record for graduate employability, meaning that students of this programme have unrivalled opportunities.
The optional modules mean that you can tailor your degree to suit your interests and career aspirations. The programme structure enables you to choose a more quantitative intensive track of modules or a qualitative analytic/business development track to reflect your own personal strengths. The most commonly chosen pathways are financial/econometrical analytics and operations/supply chain analytics.