Case Study

U of Tennessee MBAs See the Light with Data Visualization Software

Students in Professor Mary Holcomb's MBA courses at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville are spending less time figuring out how to manipulate data and more time learning how to make good decisions from that data.

Holcomb, who teaches a course on supply chain management to MBAs in their final semester at the university, has begun using a data visualization tool from Tableau Software that has dramatically changed how much time students spend trying to pry meaningful patterns from the massive practice database Holcomb uses to teach data analytics.

Holcomb's Logistics of Supply Chain Management course uses a set of huge, ASCII-formatted  databases donated by an electronics manufacturer. In previous classes, students spent an inordinate amount of time building complicated queries, or questions, about the data, using Microsoft Access. "But that's not the point of analytics," Holcomb told Campus Technology. "The whole point is to use the data to make better decisions."  And that, she said, is what Tableau has allowed students to do, by making data manipulation far easier. "With Tableau, you just click and drag.... What would have taken somebody maybe hours [to prepare a query in Access] will take minutes in Tableau."

"I just can't say enough good things about what I think about the tool," Holcomb said. "If the university hadn't bought this for me, I would have written a check for it, quite frankly."

Data visualization software goes beyond what programs such as Microsoft Excel and Access can do by allowing users to organize huge amounts of data in visual ways. That can make the endless rows and columns of data that a program such as Access presents far more comprehensible.

Using an interactive drag-and-drop interface, Tableau turns data into charts and graphs created and fine-tuned by the user. That can turn thousands or hundreds of thousands of records into simple, colorful charts that highlight data patterns by region, date, product, numbers--virtually any way the user decides. A basic premise of the field of data visualization is that information that might have been buried tends to jump out much more readily when it's presented graphically.

Tableau, which just shipped version 3.0 in April, includes a host of other features for making sense of data, including various filters, user-created dashboards, and an annotation feature that lets users add comments to their displays.

Despite the fact that she used the product for the first time during the fall semester, Holcomb said students embraced Tableau. Many, she said, plan to ask the companies they'll be joining or returning to as MBAs to purchase Tableau.  

"They've all done internships, so they're all quite aware of what kind of technology is out there," Holcomb said. "Firms are used to spending tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on most tools that they use, so the price of Tableau Software is not a constraint at all." For corporations, Tableau Standard is $999; Tableau Professional is $1,799. Academic pricing is $750 for Tableau Standard; $1,350 for Tableau Professional.

As a member of the Tableau University Consortium, the University of Tennessee uses Tableau at no cost for coursework and is also eligible for assistance with data sets and assignments, and guest lectures delivered over the web from Tableau. Consortium members include Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and the University of Michigan.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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