Building a community in business analytics

While the business world is often associated with competition rather than collaboration, a faculty member at UBC’s Sauder School of Business is launching an open platform to connect interactive learning materials and real-world problem solving — with the goal of creating a hub for the business analytics community.

Harish Krishnan, professor of operations and logistics at UBC Sauder, has been involved in the Masters of Business Analytics program since its inception. Realized with the help of a Teaching and Learning Fund (TLEF) grant, his Analytics@Sauder platform was inspired by open code repositories used in disciplines like data science and computer science, and aims to build a community around the interactive resource and support the development of these highly sought-after skills.


Interactive, open content in the classroom — and beyond

In recent years, learning technologies have increasingly allowed the development of interactive ways to learn — but as far as Harish is aware, this is the first interactive, open platform dedicated to data analysis for the business world. At its core, the site hosts a range of open-resource learning materials that students can interact with as they learn, primarily using the concept of computational narrative — a way of sharing technical content, such as a statistical model or particular piece of code, in an interactive format that prioritizes the person reading it, not the computer performing the functions.

In more traditional teaching methods or media, a concept is demonstrated in class, and students then learn how to apply it through assigned homework. Interactive content on the Analytics@Sauder site uses collaborative programming tools like GitHub and the open-source Jupyter Notebook, which provide “that sort of interactive capability right from class,” Harish explains. For example, Jupyter Notebooks can be used to create and share documents where executable code is accompanied by writings and visualizations. “You can show the Jupyter notebook, and you can trace the code on the fly, or you can change data and graphs on the fly. I think this gives students and instructors an ability to interact with the content more easily.”


Harish Krishnan

Harish Krishnan from UBC’s Sauder School of Business started an interactive business analytics platform with the support of a TLEF grant.


But Harish sees these tools as having an important role beyond classwork. “The ability to interact with content that a Jupyter Notebook in particular provides is, I think, very unique and potentially is going to be quite widespread — just as PDFs now are quite widespread.” As some academics start to explore the potential of using Jupyter Notebooks for interactive research presentations and papers, he notes “it’s a format that I think is going to be adopted quite widely, and it’s therefore good for students to have some experience with it during their program.”


Learning as we grow

Although the platform is being introduced to students as a resource starting March 2021, business analytics students have already been deeply involved in the project. The TLEF grant the project received in 2020 was used to employ three Masters of Business Analytics students to help build the first stage of the platform — supporting its development, while helping to cement their learning as well.


Harish Krishnan

Analytics@Sauder aims to build community of business analytics students, instructors, and alumni.


“Getting everything off the ground required the students to use a lot of the skills that we try to teach in the program, as well as other workplace skills that are not covered in the program,” notes Harish — with students involved in coding, tool use and project management as well as ‘meta-skills’ like working as a team. But the students weren’t the only ones to benefit from the collaboration. Harish found “it was a really great experience to work with the students, because they took the idea and ran with it. Their skills and energy were definitely required for this project to get off the ground, and get to the point where it’s at.”

One of the students who worked on the project, Charlie Cao, agrees that it was valuable preparation for working in the business world. “I really enjoyed researching and learning about cloud computing platforms and version control systems. These are important tools for collaboration and documentation, and they helped prepare me for teamwork in a big organization.” Through the project, he also gained experience with ‘agile’ practices, a widely-used method of managing work for software projects. By working on developing the platform at its most basic level first, then working in short sprints to improve specific features, he and the other students got to explore “the concept of a minimum viable product, and then iterate to continuously improve it,” learning through each stage of the process.


Creating an analytics community

While Charlie and the other students who helped develop the first stage of Analytics@Sauder have now graduated, it’s not necessarily the end of their involvement. Due to the open and collaborative nature of this content, Harish hopes that the content will be useful for alumni, as well as facilitating interaction in order to develop a business analytics community.

Charlie now works as a data analyst at a major electronics retailer, and he can see how being part of this kind of business analytics community would be a valuable resource for his career. While the Analytics@Sauder site is still in its early stages, Charlie shares his hope that “in the future, this resource can be a place where business analytics professionals share with one another how data analytics is used to drive business decisions in various organizations. There are a lot challenges that you would only run into on the job, and having a place where people can see how other people solve similar problems at work could be extremely valuable.”

And while Harish is optimistic about its future role in connecting current students with the alumni community, he notes that the first step is getting more involvement from the existing community. Within UBC, he’s looking to involve current students and instructors who use related skills, such as Sauder’s Master of Business Administration, Bachelor of Commerce, and Master of Management programs.

“What we have on the site right now is only meant to be illustrative,” he explains. “I’m hoping that instructors see this as a valuable resource which they can direct their students to, or even use it to host materials on themselves.” He emphasizes again that the platform is purposefully open for the use and contributions of others, and that only with that input will it reach its full potential: “It’s not an end product. In some sense, this is the start of a journey.”

Harish Krishnan is a Professor of Operations and Logistics at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Harish and collaborators received a TLEF grant in April 2020. See the initial proposal and details of the grant. Students hired through the grant to support the project included Charlie Cao, Hao Zheng and Kemjika Ananaba, who graduated the Masters of Business Analytics program in 2020, and Vibhuti Dhingra, a PhD candidate in Management Science.

Learn more about the Analytics@Sauder project and explore resources at the Analytics@Sauder website. Anyone interested in contributing on the project can contact Harish by email.