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Making business decisions based on gut instinct alone could increasingly put companies at a competitive disadvantage.

As the amount of data that businesses generate and collect keeps exploding, many are looking to leverage that data to make smarter, faster decisions about developing and marketing new products and services as well as determining their overall strategy.

That's where data analytics and artificial-intelligence skills come into play and why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that data analyst roles will be among the fastest-growing occupations for years to come. To help meet that demand and train students on ChatGPT and other new generative artificial-intelligence (AI) tools, the University of Minnesota has undertaken a systematic redesign of the curriculum for its yearlong graduate program in business analytics.

The new curriculum for the Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) degree launches in the 2024-25 academic year at the U's Carlson School of Management. The revamped course lineup reflects input from employers, who asked the U to provide more talent with data analytics skills, as well as from alumni and members of the Carlson School's advisory board, made up of executives from local and national companies.

Without data analytics, decisionmaking in business often can come down to experience, intuition or "whoever has the higher position in the company," said Mochen Yang, an associate professor in the Carlson School's Department of Information and Decision Sciences.

"We're observing the companies that use data analytics and business analytics for decision-making really have a substantial competitive advantage over those that don't," Yang said. "That, in large part, explains why this occupation has been in high demand as companies start to realize that it's no longer a gut-feeling-driving-decisionmaking world anymore. You need evidence, and you need data to support that process."

Professor De Liu, who directs the MSBA program, said building AI skills had been part of the coursework for years before ChatGPT appeared. While a curriculum update already was in the works, the growth in technology and focus on generative AI called for a more comprehensive approach. Interest in the new curriculum is strong enough the U might offer an AI for Business certificate program for working professionals next year.

"We hope our changes will be appealing to employers," Liu said. "The hope is that this will translate to into the competitiveness of our graduates in the job market."

Employment of data scientists should grow 35% through 2032, according to BLS projections, with 17,700 openings yearly. The median starting base salary for members of the MSBA class of 2023 was $120,000, a 20% increase from the year before, according to the Carlson School. The most common job titles for those graduates were data scientist, senior data analyst and business intelligence engineer. The top industries they got jobs in were financial services, retail and consulting.

"Companies are seeing their employees leveraging AI as a productivity tool, whether they're generating code, generating writings or generating ideas," Liu said. "But, also as an innovation tool because a lot of businesses are embedding AI everywhere in their products and generating new product features or novel services and products."

The redesigned curriculum features a new advanced "Responsible AI" course where students build the knowledge, skills and ethical mindset needed to develop AI solutions that are technologically sound but also fair, secure and transparent. It will cover topics including algorithmic bias — which can reinforce gender, racial or other stereotypes — and offer hands-on instruction in techniques for building responsible AI systems and solutions.

A new AI for Business track offers courses that go deeper into the technical aspects of using artificial intelligence. Yang, for example, is teaching a course titled Advanced AI for Natural Language Understanding, which combines the theory of machine learning and artificial intelligence with hands-on practice.

"The intended audience of this class is probably going to be a subset of our MSBA students who aspire to become not just data scientists with general skills but also specifically with the ability to build advanced AI applications for their organizations," Yang said. "They will have the theoretical understanding but also the opportunity to put that to the test by developing applications of generative AI that have some business value for companies."

Another course, Generative AI for Business Applications, aims to prepare students for the "generative AI-related choices they will face as leaders and managers," says the online course description. It focuses on the technology and the experience of working with ChatGPT and Midjourney, a popular AI-based image generator, as well as the applications, limitations and social implications of generative AI.

MSBA students will also gain practical experience as data analytics consultants under faculty guidance as well as in business issues facing client companies in the Carlson Analytics Lab.

"The reason a lot of the faculty is investing time incorporating these new tools is because this is what helps industry," Liu said. "We can see that we're transforming students into a workforce that can go out and have an impact on industry, which is very satisfying for us."

The U's MSBA program incorporates greater technical rigor than similar programs elsewhere.

"I think we're still the early mover in our space," Liu said. "We're kind of an outlier in that we go very systematically on the technical front, and now that there's generative AI, we're going even further."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is