Like many enterprises eager to turn growing volumes of customer data into actionable business knowledge, Regal Entertainment Group faced the challenge of finding data analysts to do the job.
“We use analytics in almost everything we do,” says Matt Carr, Regal’s director of financial analysis. “You have data now you didn’t have five or 10 years ago, and we’re trying to use every bit we can to help management make decisions.”
Fortunately for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company, which runs 578 theaters in the U.S. and overseas, an ambitious business analytics master’s program at a nearby university was there to provide the talent pipeline it needed.
Upon the suggestion of Dick Stevens, a career development adviser at the University of Tennessee, Regal early last year hired a student from the school’s business analytics master’s program as an intern. It went so well that the student was offered a part-time paid position, and another student who later joined part-time was hired for a full-time analytics job.
The students have provided invaluable help in analyzing transactional data from Regal’s customer loyalty program, Carr says. Further, Regal has worked twice with students from the program on the university calls “capstone projects,” in which analytics graduate students help companies with real-world problems.
“It’s difficult to find the resources to stay current in data analytics, and that’s where the university has been great for us,” Carr says.
This type of close working relationship with the business world is exactly what Stevens says the university’s three-year-old analytics program is about.
“When we changed the department from ‘Statistics and Operations Management Science’ to ‘Business Analytics and Statistics,’ we knew we needed to be much more in tune with what would become our clients, our customers, which was corporate America,” Stevens says. “So we had to really work with our students to prepare them. A lot of our students come through without any real-world experience between their undergraduate and graduate degree, so we felt it was critical to make that a part of the program.”
Working with area businesses is a recurring theme of graduate school programs in analytics, as are capstone projects. Degree programs at Arizona State, the University of Connecticut and Cornell also require their students to complete such projects.
“At the end of the day, the real reason for the department’s existence is to serve the corporate world,” Stevens says. “We really want to create a product here that is going to add significant value to the business world.”
The University of Tennessee has been aggressively placing analytics students in large businesses for three years now. The list of companies that have hired students reads like it was culled from the Fortune 100 — Caterpillar, 3M, State Farm, Disney, Progressive Insurance, Deloitte and many others.
In addition, numerous corporations serve on a board advising the Tennessee analytics program. One company, Ernst & Young, has held numerous discussions with educators about what the analytics program should be teaching. Among the ideas coming from the talks, Stevens says, is to add a supply chain track to the business analytics program.
Amber Morgan is a senior manager in Ernst & Young’s supply chain program, which produces volumes of transactional data to analyze for trends and opportunities. She’s also a graduate of Tennessee’s analytics program and helped get her current employer involved in hiring students from her alma mater. Ernst & Young hired two people from the program in 2012, another this year, and an intern who starts this month, Morgan says.
“These students come into our program with a lot of skills and knowledge of tools that we need to help clients with right out of the gate,” she says. “They’ve done a good job of incorporating different pieces of technology that can help solve problems, which I think is not typical of a lot of academic programs.”
One of the students hired last year is Alex Baker, who earned an MBA and master’s in business analytics from Tennessee.
“Some of the things that gave me a leg up before I came here weren’t specific software [tools], but general knowledge about what questions to ask when you look at a dataset,” Baker says. “One of the things that was helpful in the program was we would use real-world data sets. That gave us a chance to look at what reality is when you’re dealing with data. And it’s often not very clean data.”
Stevens says that’s the purpose and point of the university’s business analytics program.
“Our brand, so to speak, is to turn out students who can really make a difference in business strategy,” he says. “A student who can immerse themselves in an enormous amount of data, help the management of the company ask the right questions about that data, and then communicate the answers in a language that everyone can understand.”