North Carolina State’s Institute for Advanced Analytics offers a new, data-focused set of skills for business.

When Michael Rappa first suggested that North Carolina State University develop a business-oriented master’s degree program in analytics back in 1999, based on the rise of data and what he was seeing from companies like eBay and Amazon, he encountered one key obstacle: it was too early.

It was still early when he proposed it again in 2005, but this time North Carolina State asked for a full proposal, which led to a degree program that accepted its first students in 2007.

Now Rappa’s Institute for Advanced Analytics, the first business analytics program in the country, has 80 students. Nearly 60 other programs now offering advanced degrees in analytics, too. Rappa spoke with MIT Sloan Management Review’s Michael Fitzgerald about his program.

What changed between 1999 and the formal organizing of the program in 2006?

By 2005, the university was searching for forward-looking ideas, especially ones that had a strong practical orientation that would engage industry partners. Tom Davenport’s [January 2006] Harvard Business Review article [with Jeanne Harris], which led to his book Competing on Analytics, had just come out, so the term all of a sudden hit people’s radar pretty contemporaneously with the proposal.

Even so, it was a very audacious proposal. It was so outlandishly “far out there” that I think that’s why I got a chance to do it — people didn’t think it would really work. You’re proposing an entirely new degree, developing an entirely new curriculum, all new courses, and doing it within a year. If you put that in a university context, it sounds ludicrous.

Did one of the questions at the time involve asking why is this different from, say, a Master’s in statistics?

Sure. Or informatics, even other things. That’s a natural question. My argument was that we needed a university-wide initiative that wasn’t siloed in the business school, or the computer science department, or in statistics, or mathematics, but instead could draw faculty from any of those fields or specialties, so we could construct a new degree.

In my mind, it was really straightforward. I was thinking of an analogue to the MBA.