Higher Education’s Role in Developing Data Analytics Talent

What is the key needed for organizations to thrive?

GUEST COLUMN | by Libby Duane Adams

The workforce has seen a lot of change over the past several years. There is a shift to increasing data literacy as more organizations rely heavily on a massive increase in available data to drive business decisions. In fact, seven out of 10 enterprises are taking a data-driven approach today, compared to three out of 10 in 2008 (Accenture).

With this shift, there is significant demand for talent that is knowledgeable about data analytics, yet there are not enough individuals ready to start using and solving problems with data to fill the demand.

‘Higher education institutions must integrate data literacy and analytics as part of the learning curriculum across areas of study.’

In order to better prepare people for careers of the future – and ultimately to keep up with this demand for modern data analytics know-how – different learning options need to be available.

When students aren’t provided the resources to learn analytics in school, they enter the business world unprepared to thrive in a setting that places a high value on making data-informed decisions. Higher education institutions must integrate data literacy and analytics as part of the learning curriculum across areas of study.

Why Data Analytics Belongs in the Curriculum

The analytics skills gap looks drastically different today than it did in the past when the gap was due to a shortage of data scientists who knew Python or SQL. The availability of no-code and low-code analytics automation platforms means everyone – from accounting students to marketing majors – can and should learn modern analytics problem solving, creatively with data to operate effectively in a data-driven environment.

Higher education institutions need to implement programs that help learners develop the capabilities they need to question, understand and solve with data before they enter the workforce to make a difference from day one on the job. These programs need to focus on the bigger picture and drive a passion for creative problem solving with data while future professionals are in learning mode.

Kai Larsen (pictured), associate professor of Information Systems, Leeds School of Business at University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), wants his students to be prepared for a lifetime of exploring real-world problems by the time they complete a Business Analytics course.

“My goal is for students to be capable of asking intelligent questions — to develop a hypothesis about what’s going on and then test it using the latest analytic technologies with creative problem-solving skills,” said Larsen.

Creative problem solving and influencing decisions based on data is key to individual and organizational success. Employers seek to hire and retain professionals who know how to bring data-driven value, either as individual contributors or on a team. This is the type of foundation that the next generation can use to start applying data to solve problems in any industry, at any level of the organization.

When data analytics learning is introduced at universities, students acquire an in-demand skillset that they can apply in every job role across any industry, improving their career options with success.

Building the Next Generation of Data-Savvy Professionals

With such a demand for new or return-to-workforce professionals equipped with the ability to work with data, universities must begin supporting the talent pipeline and preparing their students for success.

The next generation is already recognizing the need for data literacy. CU-Boulder senior Claire McCollough (pictured) considered herself an analytics rookie in the summer of 2020. After using analytics automation and data science software introduced to her by her professor to solve data challenges on her own time, she figured she had leveled up to rookie-plus. Fast-forward to 2022, McCollough won a datathon that featured CIOs, data scientists, and others, and she secured an internship with a major accounting firm using her data knowledge.

She attributed her success to not only the focus on developing data skills while at CU-Boulder, but also her ability to think through the broader context of the data she worked with.

“There’s a saying that knowledge is power. In order to harness your data, you need to know something about it—and if you choose to ignore your data, or don’t have the skills to harness it, you’re giving that power away,” McCollough said.

Conclusion: Closing the Data Skills Gap

The importance of data continues to grow as the world continues to become more digitally driven. A diverse pool of data analytics talent is key to delivering the fast, informed, and accurate decisions needed for organizations to thrive.

‘A diverse pool of data analytics talent is key to delivering the fast, informed, and accurate decisions needed for organizations to thrive.’

For now, we need stronger partnerships between the companies that are looking for individuals who are knowledgeable in analytics and the institutions that are providing education on the topic. For example, KPMG is spearheading a Master of Accounting with Data and Analytics (MADA) program to bring analytics to nine universities through direct curriculum and internships.

Higher education institutions can close this gap by reaching out to regional and national employers to create similar programs. This not only benefits their students’ outcomes, but it also improves the university’s global ranking and reputation. After all, it’s through these programs and partnerships that will empower the next generation to harness the power of data to drive business outcomes.

Libby Duane Adams is Co-founder and Chief Advocacy Officer of Alteryx a provider of strategic analytics software for enterprise and SMB companies making critical decisions about how to expand and grow. Connect on LinkedIn.


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