Beacom School of Business prepares students for AI- and data-driven workforce

June 17, 2024

This paid piece is sponsored by the University of South Dakota.

Artificial intelligence is fundamentally altering how business is conducted across the globe – from revenue growth and daily operations to marketing and customer engagement.

As the state’s flagship business school, the University of South Dakota Beacom School of Business is at the forefront of this transformation, offering innovative programs and hands-on learning to equip students for success in an ever-changing workforce.

“We’re setting the standard of business education by embracing AI and integrating it into our curriculum,” said Timothy O’Keefe, dean of the Beacom School of Business.

“Our faculty are dedicated to shaping forward-thinking business leaders who are equipped with the confidence and ability to harness the power of AI to drive innovation.”

With AI technologies gaining prominence in the business sphere, South Dakota’s premier business school aims to prepare students to effectively utilize AI and other technologies in solving critical problems in business.

“The Beacom School of Business has been using AI in coursework since 2013,” said Thomas Tiahrt, associate professor of decision sciences.

“We are extending that trend by integrating AI directly into existing courses to demonstrate how businesses can take advantage of it, creating new courses focused on AI and offering a new AI specialization for our MBA along with a graduate AI certificate.”

In December 2023, the South Dakota Board of Regents approved two new programs within the Beacom School of Business: a graduate certificate in artificial intelligence for business analytics and an MBA specialization in artificial intelligence for business analytics.

Most recently, in April, the Board of Regents approved a Bachelor of Business Administration in agribusiness leadership – a program that combines business, agribusiness, leadership and AI-informed business analytics classes to produce professionals and entrepreneurs who are prepared to make data-driven decisions and serve as leaders in agribusiness.

“A variety of industries can benefit from individuals who combine business and AI to derive optimal actions from data with more informed decision-making and checks for impartiality, transparency, responsibility and accountability,” said Jewel Goodman Shepherd,  associate dean for business graduate programs.

“The statistics surrounding the projected need for data science and analyst occupations are clear, and a level of expertise is required for those who will hold these occupations. USD’s new programs offer opportunities to gain that expertise.”

Earning a certificate in artificial intelligence for business analytics prepares students to proficiently grasp and implement AI and cognitive technologies to tackle diverse business challenges. With courses like Data Mining for Competitive Advantage and Business Artificial Intelligence Applications, graduates in the certificate program are well-versed in how to utilize data and machine learning in business contexts. Similarly, the MBA specialization delves into the evolving realm of AI and business analytics, focusing on systems and solutions that replicate humanlike reasoning through computer processes.

“We are living in an exciting time when AI opens greater opportunities for the most interesting aspects of being a business professional: perceiving insights, driving better decisions and inventing novel solutions,” Tiahrt said.

“With our new degree programs, the Beacom School of Business is leading the way in equipping students to flourish professionally by using AI effectively.”

Not only is the Beacom School of Business leading the way in offering AI- and analytics-centered programs, but also its faculty intentionally are incorporating emerging technologies into their coursework across all disciplines, uniquely preparing students to excel as experts in utilizing these tools.

For example, Elizabeth Manser Payne, an assistant professor of marketing, has found that AI has been particularly relevant when teaching market research.

“One hands-on learning activity I assign to my students involves talking to consumers in a focus group,” Manser Payne said. “The old-school way of tracking the focus group data had students type the respondent comments of all the participants, which is a time-consuming task. Now, with the free Parrot AI software, students can get a transcription of the focus group discussion in seconds. This frees up the students’ time to actually analyze the data.”

Joshua Reynolds, a senior majoring in marketing, has noticed the intentional integration of AI in his learning experience, with some professors, like Manser Payne, highly encouraging their students to leverage the technology to find efficiencies.

“The Beacom School of Business is unique in its position on AI as professors in the business school encourage using it for various tasks related to the curriculum,” Reynolds said. “With professors directly teaching AI in class, it serves to show that these methods are important to learn as early as possible.”

In a marketing research class, Reynolds used generative AI to get a different viewpoint on raw data he collected. In other classes, he has practiced putting analytical data into ChatGPT to see what insights it provides.

While students learn that ChatGPT is not the solution for every business or every need, these experiences offer helpful exposure to the power of publicly available AI tools.

“It’s incredibly powerful,” Reynolds said. “The act of copying and pasting raw Excel data into ChatGPT and getting a solid answer as if you were asking an analyst is a game-changer for firms that wish to become more efficient.”

In addition to coursework, Reynolds also has taken advantage of ChatGPT in his work with Coyote Business Consulting – an initiative at the Beacom School of Business that gives students the opportunity to gain experience by providing free consulting services to businesses across the state.

“I had a project where I had about 130 business resources to cite and annotate to create a large database for a firm,” Reynolds said. “ChatGPT streamlined my process and provided footnotes on each source to make data organization and recall more efficient for the firm. A process that would have taken me many hours took a machine just seconds to accomplish.”

A study published by Forbes Advisor found that 97 percent of American business owners identified at least one aspect of ChatGPT that will help their business. Getting a head start with generative AI in college, Reynolds feels confident in his ability to leverage these tools in his future career.

“By using these methods at USD, I am prepared to enter the workforce with real concrete AI analytics experience as well as the familiarity of using the program, compared to others who may shy away from it,” Reynolds said. “Becoming an early adopter puts you ahead of others who may not know yet how to take advantage of this incredible new technology.”

Echoing Reynolds’ sentiment about the importance of getting a head start with AI, recent graduate Anton Pratsenko is ready to enter the job market with a comprehensive understanding of AI.

“AI isn’t just a buzzword in my educational journey; it’s a crucial tool in every analyst’s tool kit,” said Pratsenko, who earned his BBA in business analytics in May 2024. “At Beacom, I have been encouraged to explore AI techniques to generate ideas and craft innovative solutions to real-world problems. The emphasis is not just on using AI but on comprehending and explaining its methodologies, empowering us to be thoughtful and strategic in its application.”

As a business analytics major, Pratsenko gained a robust foundation in statistical techniques, essential building blocks of AI models. This education “isn’t just theoretical, it’s immediately applicable,” he said.

“As businesses increasingly turn to AI for insights and innovation, I am confident in my ability to leverage these statistical tools to drive data-driven strategies. Beacom’s curriculum isn’t just about learning concepts; it’s about practical, hands-on experiences that mirror the demands of today’s dynamic business environment.”

Through a summer informatics internship with the South Dakota Department of Health, Pratsenko will put these skills to work to make a lasting impact on the health of people across the state.

“This internship’s focus on programming and quantitative research perfectly aligns with the skills I’ve learned at Beacom,” he said. “This opportunity not only allows me to work hands-on with AI systems but also provides a chance to make tangible impacts on the well-being of South Dakotans.”

While Pratsenko prepares to leverage his knowledge of AI and analytics to make a real-world difference, another alumnus already is proving the program’s effectiveness.

With a master’s degree in business analytics, Alec Thomas, a 2023 graduate, has found that the skills he honed at the Beacom School of Business are directly relevant to his current position.

“The skills I gained to be successful at my current role are a direct product of the education I received at USD,” said Thomas, who recently became a data engineer at True Homes, a semi-custom homebuilder based in North Carolina and South Carolina.

In his role, Thomas supports True Homes’ business intelligence team by providing timely, accurate and properly transformed data to be used in reporting endeavors. While at the USD business school, Thomas became familiar with the terminology used in data engineering and database administration, as well as the logic behind the creation of the virtual infrastructure needed for a robust system – knowledge that he uses daily.

In addition to expanding his understanding of Python, R and SAS-L – programming languages used for data analysis – Thomas’ experience at the Beacom School of Business also helped him develop problem-solving skills – key capabilities for thriving in today’s dynamic workplace.

“Beacom gave me the opportunity and skill set to solve real-world problems,” Thomas said. “The faculty were extremely knowledgeable and approachable. When helping solve a problem, they coached me from start to finish, beginning with problem recognition all the way to a technical solution.

“This better prepared me to solve problems in the future and gave me the confidence to challenge assumptions and advance my understanding in any topics,” he continued.

As a data engineer, Thomas looks forward to how AI and big data can change the landscape of what’s possible for businesses to achieve. Thomas and his team are experimenting with introducing AI to aid in daily workflow; they also use AI chatbots to understand topics they might not be familiar with and as a tool to refine or check syntax structures.

“The introduction of AI and big data to the business world opens a new world of possibilities to businesses who are looking to be more efficient and precise in their operations,” Thomas said. “Big data is an exciting topic because of the rise of machine learning techniques and the business intelligence/analytics opportunities available to businesses. Now, these data stores can be transformed to knowledge that can uncover patterns, trends and anomalies within their enterprises.”

Another business analytics graduate, Ben Pinkerman, who earned his degrees in 2019 and 2020, agrees that AI has massive potential in creating efficiencies for businesses, allowing companies and employees to make more informed decisions in an accelerated fashion.

“When you can turn a 40-hour manual process into something that is automated and runs in a few short minutes, it enables everyone to digest the information much faster and then divert their attention to something else that would add significantly more value to the business,” Pinkerman said.

In his role as a business intelligence analyst at Avnet, Pinkerman utilizes AI to improve productivity, reduce costs and strengthen existing products and services. The ability to adapt to changing workforce trends and implement emerging technologies successfully is a direct result of the skill set he gained while pursuing his degrees at USD’s business school.

“Beacom set me up for a lifetime of success in this role because the master’s in business analytics program made me an extremely adaptable employee,” Pinkerman said. “From learning basic code and analytical techniques to enabling creativity in my day-to-day activities, I feel more than prepared for anything that is thrown my way in my current role.”

While AI has the potential to revolutionize the business landscape, Tiahrt acknowledges that successfully integrating AI into workflows requires more than just technical expertise – it also requires keeping humans at the center.

“AI will not replace human labor, it is not conscious or sentient, and it can only derive results from existing knowledge – it cannot generate knowledge or wisdom,” Tiahrt explained.

“It will collaborate with humans to enable us to create and innovate, helping businesses improve their bottom line. We remind our students that AI is a powerful tool, which must be used responsibly, but it is just another technological advance in the Information Age.”


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