CXO Priorities

The Next MBA You Hire Should Know GIS

By Dr. Thomas Horan

Business school graduates should understand location intelligence

The Esri Brief

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Spatial transformers will play an important role in business success in the coming decades, and today’s executives should be grooming a new generation of leaders with these skills.

Spatial business transformers are professionals who know how to use spatial—that is, location—data to solve business challenges and capture new opportunities. They boast a unique combination of skills: a strong grasp of business strategy and an understanding of the ways in which location intelligence can strengthen decision-making and improve operational and business results.

As digital transformation continues its march across the business world, savvy executives are awakening to the power of location intelligence. Retailers, for instance, are analyzing the geography of demographic trends with greater precision and planning their markets accordingly. Manufacturers are using the predictive power of location analytics to anticipate and minimize the impacts of storms on the supply chain. Insurers are opening new regions of business by pinpointing the risk profile of specific locations.

Behind every one of these advancements, you’re likely to find a spatial business transformer.

Location Awareness in an Era of Digital Transformation  

As dean of the University of Redlands School of Business, home to 1,000 graduate candidates and 500 undergraduate business students, I and the faculty around me are dedicated to helping students thrive in a business world challenged—and enhanced—by digital transformation.

That transformation will create a world of 20 billion IoT endpoints by 2020, adding to what is already a tidal wave of big data. That IoT data must be processed and refined before it can reveal opportunities for efficiency, sustainability, and profitability. Location quite literally grounds big data, giving context and depth to billions of pieces of information.

That is the province of the spatial transformer, and at the center of their work is the geographic information system (GIS), a technology that has evolved from placing simple data on maps to performing sophisticated location analysis.

At the University of Redlands School of Business, our MBA program offers a concentration in GIS. Approximately half of our MBA GIS graduates work in technical positions, half in management—but all understand both sides of the aisle. I have seen their careers blossom in the Fortune 500 and beyond, as they enhance their companies’ business processes with the help of location intelligence.

A recent study found that 66 percent of businesses consider location intelligence critical or very important to revenue growth. Yet only 9 percent of business school programs offer any exposure to GIS or spatial analytics in their curricula.

And so I ask: Are businesses—and the twenty-first century leaders we are training in business schools—prepared to harness the power of spatial data? In other words, on a national and international scale, are we properly educating spatial business leaders, and are businesses recognizing the worth of these future leaders?

The Role of Spatial Business Transformers  

Through my work in industry, I have seen leading businesses gain competitive advantage through the work of spatial business transformers.

When a major North American financial firm announced internally that it was entering a new geographic market, two members of the GIS team saw an opportunity to influence the company’s location strategy. These spatial transformers built a location model for the new market based on local demographics and data from ATMs, branches, and mobile app usage in adjacent markets.

The success of the experiment led the organization to incorporate GIS and location intelligence into more areas of its operations, including resilience planning that models potential service disruptions and response plans.

In another powerful example, analysts at one of the world’s biggest investment firms recently used the power of location intelligence to guide an investment strategy. In researching a luxury handbag maker, the company sifted through online searches for questions such as, “Where can I buy [the company’s] handbag?” By using spatial analysis to correlate those searches to the locations of those conducting the searches, the company was able to pinpoint hot spots of demand.

A spatial business transformer working for the luxury goods manufacturer itself might apply GIS in a similar fashion, identifying geographic areas with high demand and low supply. With that information, executives can home in on promising new store locations, expanding their presence in markets worldwide.

These examples illustrate the power of professionals who can use location intelligence to influence corporate strategies—the spatial transformer’s specialty.

(For more insight, listen to the podcast Leading Companies Use Location Intelligence to Enhance BI and CRM.)

Educating Tomorrow’s Business Leaders

Based on my exposure to the corporate and academic worlds, I believe it is in the best interest of both businesses and business schools to create a pipeline of spatial transformers. How do we push that effort forward? How do we improve on the current 9 percent of MBA programs that offer educational opportunities grounded in location intelligence?

At the University of Redlands, our strategy is to offer as much GIS exposure within a business context as possible. Our MBA program offers an emphasis in GIS—one of the only programs in the country to do so. We also incorporate spatial business learning throughout our MBA courses. In addition, our undergraduate business degree has a core GIS requirement—again, one of the only programs in the country to do so. And our capstone courses immerse students in using spatial analytics to solve real business problems.

A recent conversation with a Redlands MBA GIS grad reinforced my faith in the value of this approach. Less than a year after graduation, he is working for a well-known Silicon Valley company. He told me that companies are fiercely recruiting candidates with strong GIS backgrounds who can meet the high demands of the tech industry.

“What I bring to the table as an MBA student is the perspective of the business as a whole,” he told me. “My GIS concentration allows me to keep up with the technologies that a normal MBA graduate might not understand. The combination of the two is invaluable.”

Fostering a Partnership between Business and Academia

A small cadre of universities—including the University of California Riverside (UCR); University of Wisconsin-Stout; Murray State University; and Pace University—are infusing their business curricula with spatial analysis and location intelligence learning. Their insight and leadership are inspiring, and you can hear their voices in the callouts throughout this article.

In academia, we understand we have much work to do to train the leaders who are needed now and in the future. The involvement of business executives is key to this work. Businesses will create the demand for spatial business transformers, and business schools will create the supply. As more companies realize the power and potential of location data, they will seek new hires with the training and experience to leverage spatial analytics across all facets of their organizations. In many ways, this is becoming the next phase of business intelligence—spatial business intelligence.

It may be too soon to tell, but I believe that spatial BI—achieved through a blend of business acumen and GIS expertise—will only become more valuable as IoT and big data further transform the business and technology worlds. And as young spatial transformers rise into the C-suite, they will help elevate location analysis into a strategic role. The companies that employ them will be well-situated to thrive in the coming years.


Photo by Jonathan Daniels.

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