Portland State’s Business School Upskills Workforce for Digital Transformation
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meena Al-Azzawe talked with a friend about past regrets. For her, never earning a master’s degree rose to the top. While Al-Azzawe intended to pursue graduate school in the late 90s after completing her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she instead joined the workforce and established a successful career in supply chain analytics.
“My friend told me that I’m not too old to get a master’s degree, that I could do it,” she reflected.
Heeding that advice, Al-Azzawe researched programs and came across Portland State University's new online Master of Science in Applied Data Science for Business (MSADSB). She applied and was accepted just in time for the inaugural Fall 2020 cohort — two weeks later, she was a graduate student.
MSADSB students specialize in one of four areas: Business Blockchain, Business Intelligence & Analytics, HR Analytics, or — in collaboration with OHSU — Health & Clinical Informatics. The core curriculum develops necessary skills across industries and functions, including machine learning, managerial accounting, change management, data visualization, and privacy, security and ethics.
“I found that I had better language and literacy to speak with my clients and articulate nuanced trouble spots before they emerged,” Al-Azzawe said after completing the core curriculum. “There was tremendous value in every course; change management was particularly eye-opening.”
Al-Azzawe is the senior director of the value assurance center at Genpact, a global professional services firm. Focused on guiding clients through digital transformation, she stays abreast of emerging technological solutions. She’s pursuing the Business Blockchain specialization, an area that piques her interest but she’s not directly exposed to in her role.
“Blockchain is like the digitized WD-40 across industries,” she said. “I could learn about it and know when to leverage it. It’s empowering to augment my sphere of knowledge.”
MSADSB Academic Director Ketan Sampat emphasizes the exponentially growing need for digital technologies and those who recognize how to leverage them in business. “The use of data is pervasive in our rapidly-changing world,” he said. “We must prepare leaders to be fluent in both management and technical skills. This preparation is one of the primary strengths of our program.”
The program partners with several industry leaders to bring real-world challenges into the classroom and students into the real world. “Working on firm-sponsored business problems allows students to effectively practice what they’re learning and make an impact in our community," said Sampat.
Al-Azzawe’s project team worked with transportation planning and engineering firm DKS Associates on Vision Zero, an initiative that aims to prevent all fatal injuries caused by traffic accidents.
“There’s no one way to achieve the ideal,” said Al-Azzawe of Vision Zero. “Different cities take different approaches. Our charge was product validation by asking clients what they want and challenging them to think about what’s possible.”
Like Al-Azzawe is applying these skills with her own Genpact clients, she and fellow MSADSB students helped DKS understand how to best describe and make a business case for innovative tools and solutions to their transportation clients.
“Real-time data doesn’t have to mean real-time solutions,” said DKS National Director for Smart Cities and Connected Vehicles Adrian Pearmine. “The students helped our clients understand possibilities, identify where they can be more agile, and determine how they can incrementally grow. We learned as much as a partnering company as we taught.”
Connected vehicles offer near real-time big data, making the transportation industry less reliant on years-old crash data to identify and prevent problems. DKS is creating better-informed solutions by pairing real-time, dynamic dashboards with more static, long-term plans.
“We need to monitor and model the world around us,” he added. “Historical data isn’t enough when we’re trying to save lives.”
DKS jumped at the opportunity to work with MSADSB students, underscoring a commitment to pivot in an evolving environment accelerated by the pandemic. The firm presents a good use case for digitizing static deliverables, a market need across industries that MSADSB graduates will be well-positioned to deliver on.
“The pandemic taught the world that many industries can operate and thrive virtually,” Pearmine said, noting that transportation engineers and planners have been promoting the idea of telecommuting for decades. “Not everyone needs to be on the road at the same time. Smoothing out peaks in transportation congestion creates safer roads and changes how the industry operates.”