The SAS Institute signed, some two months ago, a strategic partnership with the four leading universities in Singapore, aiming to jointly develop the local business analytics industry.

As Business Analytics has been identified by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore as one of the key focus areas for economic growth, their venture has received a lot of attention and support.Coverage on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and the four members of Singapore’s Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL) were covered in the June issue of Asian e-Marketing, but we got a chance to talk face-to-face with Mr. Bill Lee, Managing Director, SAS after the ceremony to get further information on the SAS institute.

The outstanding leader in business analytics and services started its collaborations with institutes of higher learning from their Global HQ in Cary, North Carolina, US where they even have set up a department just to engage with universities. North Carolina State University was the first to launch a Master in Business Analytics, which was developed hand in hand with SAS. Similar programs are now provided in Singapore and even in China, just the intensity is different.

“So over the last four years we decided that because the skill set is such a challenge here in Singapore and the gap here in terms of talent pool is quite wide, we have focused almost all of our corporate responsibility efforts into education specifically in the area of business analytics”, Bill Lee explained.

The key motivation for offering the course has been the fact that in many organizations in Singapore business analytics are mainly in the hands of foreigners and to change that, locals should get the right skill set to be able to enter this field, too. “It is a known fact that Singapore is probably five years behind North America and Western Europe in the use of business analytics in organizations, so we are playing a catch up game”, Bill said. He believes that Asia Pacific is generally doing a catch up game and depending on the country some might be even eight or nine years behind these advanced economies, pointing out the situation in the banking industry, exemplifying: “The DBSs, OCBCs, and UOBs of the world, they don’t have to leave Singapore and they are competing globally, why? Citibank is here, HSBC is here, Standard Chartered Bank is here and they are all going after the same customer. Citibank will bring in all of their capabilities from New York, from London, from all over the world, which means mainly business analytic skill sets. So, in order for the local banks in this particular example to compete actively, they have no choice but to also start building up such capabilities."

SAS has been working to fill this lack of talent and skill set gap for quite some time now. In addition, Bill notes: “We can’t be going overseas to hire the skill sets all the time because it is very expensive and there are projects in the public sector where you cannot use foreigners, there are many sensitive projects where you need locals. Therefore we started to talk with government - the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Infocom Development Authority (IDA), and the Workforce Development Agency (WDA).  We tried to convince them that there is a gap and a need to fill it. If you think about it, almost 90%+ of North American and Western Europe MNCs have their Asian Headquarters here in Singapore. Most of them also have their data centers here in Singapore, so there are tons and tons of data centers here and in Singapore the government often says the reason why all these MNCs are attracted to us is because of our good flight network, our good sea lane network, our communications, security and so on and so forth. There is this other advantage that we have, which we have not mined effectively which is with all this data here technically speaking an MNC with an Asian head office in Singapore, if we have a pool of business analysts, capable business analysts doing work here, this organization, this MNC sitting here in Singapore is actually able to analyze it’s data from around Asia Pacific. Directing its business whether it is strategically or tactically for example, so we have been pushing this message that if we want to create a knowledge economy and an information economy, we need to have our boys and girls leaving school able to spell business analytics because at the end of the day if we cannot move all of this data we have, if we can’t make head or tail of it, then how can we call ourselves a knowledge economy?” So I think the government gets that and believes that is true you know, so we have been working closely with WDA and IDA to determine what can be done and what should be done and at the same time concurrently or even without government’s involvement.

Singapore Management University (SMU) was the first IHL that started the initiative more than three years ago. SAS signed an agreement with the smallest, youngest and fastest moving university in the city, and introduced its Masters in Business Analytics for financial services and another degree in services for business analytics just last year. When the first batch of SMU students graduated, the success became obvious as all of them found jobs even before they finished their studies. So, most probably, the other universities were watching and saw the success of SMU and jumped on the bandwagon. So, for SAS the situation has slightly changed in the past few months, as they are now working closely with additional universities and polytechnics here in Singapore. A number of these institutions sent a study group to Cary, North Carolina to understand more about business analytics and what is possible.

Bill Lee elaborated: “We have also sponsored them to visit North Carolina State University because the entire faculty, the full curriculum, has already been set up for a number of years now. On top of that we offer the schools help to install and maintain our technology. At Singapore Management University, for example, we have set up an SAS Advanced Analytic Lab, where the students and faculty can go to and that particular lab is set up not only for the students within the business analytics course, but it is for the entire university. Further, we work with the universities to offer scholarships to encourage students to choose a career in business analytics, which are often non-bonding so that they can work for anyone they wish to choose later on, as well as internships. We also provide training faculty, so that the know how to use our software solutions in their teaching and very often when you teach a data mining course, for example, rather than having the professor start to grind out case studies and case papers, we provide the full course curriculum and sometimes even the content and the case studies so that they can focus on their teaching and they don’t have to worry about starting from ground zero building an entire course up. The university, of course, typically will take out material and they may have enhanced it depending on their focus. So in future we plan to do a lot more things and as we get to know the deans and as soon as we get to know the need of the schools, we can become more specific in the way we work with each of these IHLs.”

SAS actually started to work with some of these schools before ink dried so as not to lose any time. NTU, Temasek Polytechnic and Singapore Polytechnic will soon follow SMU with their program and for the next few months the company is busy with providing their products and services to all IHLs interested in “The Power to Know”.

By Daniela La Marca