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Bringing data to company decision-making: What exactly is business analytics?

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It should come as no surprise that big business decisions are made every single day at companies small and large. 

It is also well assumed that the best big decisions are ones with evidence and back them up—in the form of data. But how does data go from being raw information like surveys and click-through rates to being part of sometimes world-altering decision-making? Business analytics is how.

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The emphasis on data-powered decision-making is nothing new; in fact, businesses have known about its significance for years. A decade ago, Deloitte noted in a 2013 study that focus on big data and analytics were to be the “new normal” for maintaining growth. “Companies must focus on evolving their analytical maturity in addition to developing capabilities around rapid experimentation and trial and error. Remaining agile will be essential for handling this “new normal,” it stated.

So, with today there being hundreds of thousands of workers who describe themselves as business analysts (not to mention there now being an entire international organization dedicated to the field, the IIBA), an important question lingers: what exactly even is business analytics? Fortune has you covered.

What is business analytics?

In the simplest terms, business analytics is the process or the ability to drive decisions using data and analytics, according to Anindya Ghose, the director of the master’s of science in business analytics program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The school Stern is home to the no. 9 best MBA program, based on Fortune’s ranking.

Business analytics is a field that is constantly evolving in accordance with technological developments. A few decades ago, business analytics was a much simpler domain in the typical business-tech space: spreadsheets could house information, trends could be identified using basic formulas, and data could be visualized to the team of decision-makers.

But today, business analytics is everywhere—in tech, healthcare, education, retail, media, and beyond. 

“The way we think about business analytics now—it’s a little bit of everything for everybody,” says Devanshu Mehrotra, curriculum developer and lead instructor at General Assembly, with a background in the world of analytics.

Business analytics is more so the art of data translating, says Mehrotra.

“And the idea is, since data is being democratized, and the idea is that specific organizations should own their data, they should be responsible for their data, then it’s important for there to be data translators,” he adds.

What skills do you need for business analytics?

While the exact skills needed to excel in business analytics may differ depending on industry, company, and level of experience, there are several foundations that are important to have, including:

  • Domain expertise: business fundamentals and relevant industry knowledge
  • Technical know-how: programming, data analysis, data visualization
  • Storytelling: translating data trends to business needs

The last point in particular was something Mehrotra and Ghose both emphasized as an area that really sets excellent business analysts apart from other fields. 

Additionally, knowledge of both high and low code tools are important technical aspects of the job, including for, as Mehrotra notes:

Data ability Skill
Extraction SQL, Power Query editor, Excel
Analysis Python, R, Alteryx, KNIME
Communication and visualization Power BI, Tableau, Looker

Because there are many data-related tools available—and every company may use something different—Mehrotra says it is important to be tool agnostic. 

“Multiple tools should be in your repertoire, (so) that you pick the tool based on the problem, not try and shove every problem into the two tools that you know,” he says. “And that’s why I’m always like—it’s do you understand the why before you understand the how.”

Ghose adds that in order to succeed in business analytics, having training in these two areas are of great importance:

  • Econometrics (advanced statistics and modeling)
  • Experimental design (creation and understanding of tests and behaviors)

It would also be remiss to not mention the criticality of AI in space. Like other fields, the tech is streamlining some of the day-to-day activities of business analytics. 

How can you learn business analytics?

Those wanting to get involved in business analytics are in luck because there are numerous ways to learn the in-demand skills.

When looking at traditional degree pathways, many universities have undergraduate and graduate degrees focused specifically on business analytics. (Fortune ranks the best online master’s in business analytics). And even if there is no program labeled business analytics directly, you can also gain through a combination of business and data science endeavors.

If a longer degree program is not for you, checking out a bootcamp or course in business analytics may provide a quicker, cheaper, and/or more flexible opportunity.

A few years ago, Mehrotra explains he may have recommended going down a traditional degree route, but because the world of analytics is always changing, a shorter program may be a better way to get the most up-to-date skills from instructors with recent industry experience.

“To me, I think long form education, specifically around these areas are not very impactful and not a good return on investment,” Mehrotra says. “I think short form and creating your own journey, so as to speak, is important and I do think that some kind of short form educational programs are a very important part of that.”

Regardless, what’s key to sticking out in a competitive job ecosystem is gaining hands-on projects, creating a portfolio, and learning from instructors with real-world experience, Mehrotra notes.

Studying business analytics also does not necessarily mean you are boxed in to becoming a business analyst. Other job titles may include data scientist, data analyst, market researcher, chief digital officer, chief data officer, head of product, and intelligence analyst.

“It’s now increasingly difficult, if not impossible to imagine—taking decisions without the help of computers, algorithms and data,” Ghose says. “So, you will almost certainly see lots of benefits from that. I think that is just the way of the world today will just continue to be even more ubiquitous as we proceed. So, jump in and join the party.”



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