Excelling at Excel

Should all undergraduate business students study spreadsheet-based modeling?

For the past two years I’ve been thinking about this question, first as a member of the Provost’s Task Force for Quantitative Pedagogy, and now as a member of two follow-up efforts (the Weissman School’s “implementation committee” and the Zicklin School’s “quant group”). If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share some of what I am hearing.

First, I asked young alumni as well as hiring managers who recruit Baruch’s BBA graduates.

They told me that to compete for the best entry-level professional positions, one needs spreadsheet fluency (some said that PowerPoint presentation skills and Access database skills are key too). And once on the job, according to Accountancy’s Harry Davis, young Excel and Access database “whiz kids” are receiving promotions earlier, especially at smaller firms where such skills are invaluable. Just yesterday someone told me that she perceives a double standard on Wall Street: all else being equal, Ivy League entry-level job candidates can say, “sure, I can learn MS-Excel visual basic macros” whereas a Baruch candidate would probably receive additional scrutiny over such statements.

Next, I surveyed our undergraduate BBA students (i.e., my MGT 3121 students.)

Students tell me that they want stand-alone courses in Excel modeling and they want Excel deeply embedded in business courses where it makes sense. I’ve heard this so many times that it motivated this article for my professional society’s monthly magazine.

Next, I asked Patricia Imbimbo and C. May Reilly at Baruch’s STARR Career Development Center.

They tell me that the need for spreadsheet and modeling skills are so great that they developed their own training program. The two-dozen or so students who qualify for the Financial Leadership Program (FLP; formerly called Wall Street Careers) receive three half-day Excel workshops on shortcuts, pivot tables, if statements, solver, vlookups and visual basic macro programming. In addition, Training the Street gives FLP participants additional modeling instruction. If our most promising graduates need such training, what does this say about the other 2000 BBAs who expect to graduate this year?

I asked my industry contacts at professional meetings.

They stress the importance of analytical thinking in business and the buzzword du jour: “business analytics.” Despite the current 26-year high in unemployment, analytics is a growth area. Consider this: IBM sees great promise in business analytics consulting. Tom Davenport’s 2006 Harvard Business Review article and subsequent book Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning are best sellers. The term analytics is so popular that INFORMS launched a new online magazine called Analytics. Professor Peter Bell at the Ivey School of Business gives other examples that include the end of the Boston Red Sox’s infamous post-season curse (e.g., see this 60 Minutes interview with Red Sox statistician Bill James). You sports junkies may enjoy the journal Interfaces Analytics in Sports” special issue.

I asked colleagues at other business schools.

Some are leading the way with innovative new courses in spreadsheet modeling. Those that replace traditional course titles such as “quantitative models for management,” “management science,” or “decision models for management” with more contemporary titles such as “decision making with business analytics” or simply “business analytics” are realizing unprecedented class enrollments. Peter Bell tells me that the Ivey School doubled its MBA enrollments in a traditional management science course with some simple name changes (and careful attention to content). They’ve been so successful that the MBAs requested a follow-up class and faculty replicated the approach in the undergraduate curriculum. He wrote about some of these experiences here.

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9 Responses to Excelling at Excel

  1. susan m. chambre says:

    This is an important deficiency. Quantitative reasoning is also needed for liberal arts students. I have a capstone in Sociology and not one student — including several who had taken stat — remembered the concept of a correlation coefficient.

    Susan Chambre

  2. Bill Ferns says:

    For years, the CIS program has had a course, CIS3367, that covers this material. It used to be 1/2 quantitative modeling with Excel, and 1/2 database management with Access, but it is now “all spreadsheets all the time” (but really, it’s all about quantitative modeling for business). We have been able to run three sections of it per semester (including a weekend section!), so if you want you students to get these skills, tell them to check out CIS3367.

    The unspoken problem here is that, between the basic core, the business core, the major, and the Tier III minor, many students, especially transfer students and accountancy majors, have almost no room for electives. Many students want to take a course such as CIS3367 that covers quantitative work with spreadsheets, but many can’t fit it in their requirements without taking extra credits.

    Hence, any program that wants this coverage has to integrate it into its own courses, or provide some elective space for its majors to take a focused course such as CIS3367. Without either adaption of curriculum or more flexible major programs, we’re not going to be able to drive student traffic to courses where they can learn these skills.

  3. Raquel Benbunan-Fich says:

    People tend to forget that we already have a course covering Excel skills (CIS3367). It might not be as oriented to quantitative modeling as OR-professionals might want, but it covers intermediate and advanced Excel skills, which are the foundation to build these models using spreadsheets. So, in addition to including this course as a recommended elective for certain majors, here is another thought… why don’t we embed Excel in MGT3121? Isn’t this the perfect place to have “Excel deeply embedded in business courses where it makes sense”?

  4. WMillhiser says:

    Raquel, I agree and we’re working on it! 🙂

  5. WMillhiser says:

    For those who are interested, in a related direction, the editors of Harvard Business Review called Analytics/Operations Research one of the top ideas of the past decade. See http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2010/01/the_decade_in_management_ideas.html

  6. Excel skills are of utmost importance! I’m currently a junior at Baruch majoring in Finance. In my personal experience, questions regarding Excel have come up frequently during interviews. I recommend all students with a desire to work on wall street take some CIS electives. Currently I am enrolled in CIS 3367 (Spreadsheet Applications in Business)! I believe this class should not be categorized as a “CIS” course, as this scares away many business students. I would also love for these courses to take place in a computer lab!

  7. Excel should be Tate in grade school as an course. just my opinion…

  8. Raissa says:

    From the comments that I just read, what you are saying is that instead of taking the simnet excel exam, I can take CIS3367 as a substitute, pass it and I don’t have to take the simnet excel exam?
    Please let me know!

  9. PMa says:

    When I taught CIS 3367, my approach was to use Excel as a modeling tool and covered various management science models. Becaused I had management science as part of my background, I used a standard textbook to cover advanced skills in Excel, and chapters from a management science textbook as complimentary materials. My class was somewhat harder than some students have expected. However, I did get students who sent me e-mail thanking me to teach them the material when they went to job market.

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