University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 71: Rajiv Sabherwal and Paul Cronan Discuss of the Master of Applied Business Analytics Program

May 13, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Rajiv Sabherwal is a distinguished professor and chair of the department of information systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. He is the Edwin & Karlee Bradberry Chair and a Fellow of IEEE and the Association of Information Systems.

Paul Cronan is a professor of information systems and the director of MIS and graduate certificate programs at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. He is an alum of the Walton College and is the MD Matthews Endowed Chair.

Episode Transcript

00:08 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. And what those values mean in business education and your life today.

00:28 Matt Waller: I have with me today Paul Cronan, who is a professor in the Department of Information Systems, he also holds the MD Matthews Endowed Chair. And he is the director of the information systems graduate degree programs, and he is also the executive director of Walton Enterprise Systems.

And I have Rajiv Sabherwal who is a professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems. He is also the Edwin & Karlee Bradberry chair in information systems. He is also the ninth most cited researcher at the University of Arkansas, not just in Walton College but at the University of Arkansas. Thank you both for joining me today for this.

01:18 Paul Cronan: Hi Matt.

01:18 Rajiv Sabherwal: Hi Matt. Thanks for having us.

01:21 Matt Waller: I'm really excited about this, because your department has been extremely entrepreneurial in terms of coming out with programs. You have the block chain center of excellence, you've got the degree programs and certificate programs in Blockchain and in business analytics and information systems.

You all are very entrepreneurial, because I think the reason you are, and I know both of you, it's because you want to serve students, you want the best for our students and for society, and I of course, as you know, appreciate that. But your most recent innovation is the master of applied business analytics, which is brand new. And it's really important right now for a number of reasons.

But again, thank you both for being student-focused and helping us fulfill our land grant mission through these kind of programs that you create.

02:34 Paul Cronan: Certainly.

02:35 Matt Waller: Now, this Master of Applied business analytics. I remember back in 2012, the Harvard Business Review came out with a special issue on data science, big data and predictive analytics.

And I remember when I first started reading some of those articles, I thought, "Okay, we have a bunch of data, we just have more data now." And I remember reading a metaphor in one of those articles in the Harvard business field, saying something like that is like saying, well, we had photography, we had cameras that could take still pictures, and then we just got a whole bunch of them and we can make a movie.

But there's a big difference between a movie and a picture. So they were saying big data has really changed the game. And of course, we've seen that in a big way with a lot of our constituents. But if you all wouldn't mind, just share with me a little bit about, what is the unique contribution or value-add of this type of a Master's program.

03:46 Paul Cronan: Of course, as you know Matt, about that time we started the graduate certificate in business analytics. And what we heard from the students and from companies who are hiring the students, is we want more, we wanna dig deeper, we wanna be able to get our hands dirty and have a little practice.

So I think the key word here is applied, applied business analytics, solving those business problems.

04:15 Matt Waller: When I first moved here back in 1994, I remember, you Paul, had a doctoral student who was working with Walmart on her dissertation, and they were giving her tons of data. Do you remember that?

04:32 Paul Cronan: Yes.

04:33 Matt Waller: And I thought, "Wow these are huge data sets, compared to what I had dealt with. But now, that would seem like a small dataset.

04:40 Paul Cronan: Yes. It's coming in so fast, it's coming from different directions. The volumes are out of this world, very difficult to manage. Somehow the spreadsheet just doesn't do it anymore.

04:53 Matt Waller: Now, I know Paul, you got a huge data set from Dillard's that we make available on our website.

05:00 Paul Cronan: Yes.

05:01 Matt Waller: Would you tell me a little bit about that?

05:03 Paul Cronan: Sure. We're very fortunate. Dillard's has basically given to us for our students' use and if we want for our research, a live data set, their sales data, this is very useful. In fact, they refresh it every week, about five years of data and counting.

05:21 Matt Waller: That's remarkable that was very generous of them. And do you use data sets like that in this new Master's program?

05:29 Paul Cronan: It is just that kind of data that we use, we use the Dillard's data set, we have a huge Sam's club dataset that we use, a Walmart data set, we have a Tyson's data set, a Nielsen data set.

So from these different data sets, we'll be able to illustrate to students, some of the things that they could be doing with this data. And I kinda like to coin it as, what do they tell us and maybe what kind of questions should we be asking. And then, how do I get this data, how do we fix this so that we can actually use the data?

And we call that data wrangling, we have to kinda fix the data, we have to kinda present it in a form that can be used and understood by others. And then finally, now that we have the data, let's put it to work, let's build some models, let's forecast, let's predict, let's assess.

06:21 Matt Waller: That is terrific.

06:23 Rajiv Sabherwal: It's interesting to hear about the data because when we reached out to some of our industry contacts, some of the senior executives at companies like Tyson and JB Hunt and Dillard's, and so on. That was one of the themes that kept coming back.

So not surprisingly, the director for IT infrastructure at Dillard's mentioned the data set that we have from Dillard's, but also mentioned other data sets that we in the Walton College have through information system supply chain and other departments. And both he and the Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President for Tyson, Scott Spradley whom you know well Matt.

They both emphasized the fact that our programs and especially this new program, will position the students very well.

07:17 Rajiv Sabherwal: In fact, one of the things Scott Spradley in his letter mentioned, along the lines what y'all have been talking about.

He said, "Each day humans are creating almost three exabytes of data, and it is forecasted that we will see 163 zettabytes created each day by 2025. It's extremely difficult to even get your arms around these numbers that they talk about. And they both highlighted that this program will be well set to help students deal with that data explosion and help their companies.

07:53 Matt Waller: I noticed, of course, you all have a new website set up for this program, which is really nice looking. And I noticed in looking at it that you can go part-time for two years or you can go full-time for a year. I'm sure students appreciate that kind of flexibility.

08:09 Paul Cronan: They're able to focus and finish basically in a fall, spring, and summer. Or they can do five semesters, and get into sort of a blended program, where we do 75% or so online, and then they come together approximately one Saturday a month, where they can work on their teams and work with their professors and still hold a full-time job.

08:32 Matt Waller: I know you emphasized it's a Master of Applied business analytics. And some data science or analytics programs that are out there, when the students get in, they realize, "Oh my gosh, this is like statistics all over again." And I know you all have been diligent to make sure that's not the case, 'cause you're looking for people that have strong domain experience too. Right? And knowledge.

09:00 Paul Cronan: Yes. They generally understand the problem they're trying to get into. We're basically looking for those students who want to learn and get excited about what's all in this data. There's gold in them hills, and just when they start fooling around with it, that interest in working with the numbers usually does it.

09:21 Matt Waller: You know there's such a shortage right now of people who can do the kinds of things that this type of master program equips them to do. And part of the reason for the shortage is that the demand for it grew so quickly, because of the data that's available. You've sensed that probably in teaching and administration.

09:44 Rajiv Sabherwal: Yes. We are already seeing a considerable interest in the program, where the number of students approaching Paul and other colleagues. And in addition to what you and Paul have been talking about, one other aspect that's really gonna distinguish this program, is that in addition to the traditional instructor, professor such as Paul or myself, we will have for each course, we will have an Executive in the Residence.

And what the Executive in Residence does is he or she will be present at each class and will provide an industry perspective to the discussion. So what that will do is it will keep the discussion very connected to practice, and that reinforces the term applied.

These individuals will not be professors, they'll not be traditional academics, instead they will all be people working in the industry.

10:46 Matt Waller: So you'll have a professor and an Executive in Residence.

10:49 Rajiv Sabherwal: That is correct.

10:50 Paul Cronan: Yes.

10:50 Matt Waller: Are there any programs like that? I've never heard of it.

10:53 Rajiv Sabherwal: We do do that in the Master's in Information Systems, Matt. So in the course that I teach, I benefit tremendously from Willy Graef, who is a Senior Vice President at Infor, which is a fairly large ERP company. And his insights are absolutely invaluable.

So, the book that I use has this Chief Information Officer, a fictitious character who has a whiteboard, and so we complement it with Willy's whiteboard. And so each face-to-face class Willy puts a few things down on the whiteboard, and that whiteboard grows over the course of the semester, and the students absolutely love it.

11:38 Paul Cronan: This is fairly unique across the universities. Very few, if any, programs have this. It keeps the course grounded. So it's not just that regular classroom talk. No, there's somebody from business who comes in and says, "Yeah, that's true, but let me tell you what really happens."

11:56 Matt Waller: I am so glad you all are doing that. I think it's brilliant. It's very innovative.

12:02 Paul Cronan: Now Matt, you talked earlier about what some of the companies were asking about in meeting. And I just wanted to address that as we visit with companies, clearly what we hear them saying is that they need this unicorn, this magical creature that knows all about data science, business analytics, statistics, mathematics, everything you need to know, computer science.

They want that person to be graduated. We are not really seeking to produce that person, at least I haven't met one of those. What we're trying to do is to perhaps create teams of individuals who have certain specialties and interests to allow them to be able to shine in their area of focus. To form a team for a company to solve a problem. And the way we're gonna try to do this with the master of applied business analytics, is we're gonna use a practicum course.

13:00 Paul Cronan: Now, the Practice course is unique in this sense, in that from the beginning of the program through the end of the program, they're gonna be working on their practicum. So for the full-time student, during that first semester as they begin working on their problem, their thesis problem, they're gonna be able to apply everything they're learning in the other classes.

Specifically, we want them in that very first practicum course to be able to understand the problem, understand the company, do some visualizations and kinda have an idea of how they might go about solving this problem for the company. So they're working with a company, a real data set.

13:41 Matt Waller: If someone is part-time, are they permitted to bring a problem from work for the practicum?

13:49 Paul Cronan: Yes, in fact, that is very much encouraged part-time or full-time, especially for part-time, we're gonna go through non-disclosure agreements and that sort of thing, and dependent upon the company. In fact, we had one company that asked if they might not be able to have our students use their computers, their data sets, which is perfectly okay. We might even come to a situation where the faculty member may not even have access to the data, but may have access to the solutions and the strategy. And I think that's how it should be.

14:24 Matt Waller: That is amazing. Now, if I'm understanding correctly, you all are contemplating a joint Master's of applied business analytics and an MBA, is that correct?

14:38 Paul Cronan: That is correct. Students have the ability to focus really into, in statistics or

they can focus in education or they can focus in other business areas. And as a result of that and talking with the MBA program, it seemed to be the thing to do, to put together a joint degree program, where a student can get both degrees. Of course, there are more hours, but we can use 12 hours between the two degree programs, so it's a pretty good deal for students who really wanna get into that applied analytics, but also wanna have that general area of Business Administration.

15:19 Matt Waller: When will that be available?

15:20 Paul Cronan: We're working on it now. And in fact, it should go through the system for approvals and be available in the fall of 2021.

15:29 Matt Waller: Well, I noticed just looking at the website that you say at the top, "What story does the data tell?" And you mentioned that at the beginning of our talk. And that really is what people want to know. And so often I think a lot of the students go through rigorous programs, and they learn how to test hypotheses and on and on and on. But that ability to tell the story is different than coming up with a program to crunch numbers and test a hypothesis or something.

16:02 Paul Cronan: You're absolutely right. In fact, Dr. Beth Keefer, one of the things she does and helps the other instructors to learn to do is story-telling. How do you tell stories? And Dr. Sabherwal Rajiv basically teaches in his class visualization, how do we make this data come to life to tell a visual story? So it's really a lot of art there.

16:29 Matt Waller: Rajiv how do you do that? How do you use visualization and analytics?

16:36 Rajiv Sabherwal: So we've been using, Paul and Beth and Ron Freeze and I, we've been using it in a number of different contexts, both within courses and research. Currently, we are involved, Dr Ron Freeze specifically is serving as a judge for a panel that is looking at data visualizations in the context of COVID-19. So it is a competition, the students, industry people even, can submit proposals on stories data's telling in various different contexts, but all about COVID-19 and the impact it has. So we really are talking about stories, not just about business. And so both the stories that we tell using the data as well as this Master's in Applied business analytics is really relevant not only to people working in the industry, but also those looking for careers in public service, government, healthcare, etcetera.

One student that I had in an analytics course, visualization course, was a full-fledged practicing physician who was very interested in analytics, so it really applies to a very broad spectrum.

17:55 Matt Waller: That's terrific. So Rajiv and Paul what are the kinds of backgrounds you need? Do you need a whole bunch of mathematics courses or statistics courses to get into this program?

18:08 Paul Cronan: I think I would say it this way, that first of all, you have to have an interest and a knack for working with numbers. Having a sophisticated math background or that sort of thing, really isn't necessary.

What we are able to do with some of the students, is we give them a couple of courses, especially right upfront, a course, absolutely free, we'll allow the students to get into it and it's a tool kit. They get to work with a little data, etcetera, so we kinda get everybody to the same level before we even start the program.

18:41 Matt Waller: I am so glad to hear that. In some ways what you're doing is what society needs. 'Cause if you create all of these barriers to entry into these programs, there's not gonna be

many people with analytics capabilities out there. So you guys are doing the extra work of making it available to a wider audience. That's terrific.

19:04 Rajiv Sabherwal: What we find, since our students will be working in groups a lot, in several of the courses. If you have an individual who's an expert artist, who's a Fine Arts major, or who's a psychology major, working in a team with someone who has an information systems background or someone who's a sociology background, those teams work phenomenally because they all learn from each other and they see the different perspectives.

19:34 Matt Waller: Well, thank you both for taking time to share with me about this and with our audience. I think it's really... I'm really grateful that you guys have put this together. It's phenomenal. So thank you so much, good talking to you.

19:49 Paul Cronan: Thank you. Absolutely.

19:53 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe, and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Beepic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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