by Joseph Kerski
Education Manager, Esri, and Instructor, University of Denver

A quiet geographic revolution is occurring on many university and college campuses around the world. Faculty and students in schools and colleges of business are increasingly turning to GIS tools and data in instruction and research. Given that business has always been about “location, location, location,” it makes sense that educators seeking to prepare their students for the workplace are doing so. Yet location analytics, as it is most often called in business schools, took some years to gain a firm foothold. Why is this the case, what are the implications, and how can the geography community assist with these exciting developments?

Business schools adopt geospatial tools and datasets for the same reasons that faculty in disciplines such as geography, health, and data science do so: instructors want students to learn skills in critical thinking, spatial thinking, and problem-solving; to find tools that can help them link theory and practice; to guide students to be effective decision-makers and leaders when they graduate into the workplace; and to see patterns, relationships, and trends in the data they analyze for their own research. Location analytics is most commonly taught in supply chain management, risk assessment, marketing, consumer behavior, and management courses. This article highlights five shining examples of exciting developments happening right now, ranging from individual courses to complete programs in business analytics.

In this location analytics activity are enriched tessellations using ArcGIS Business Analyst Web App showing the number of adults carrying medical insurance.

Several developments have been key to ushering in the adoption of location analytics:

  • As GIS tools migrated to a cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment—manifested in such tools as ArcGIS Insights, ArcGIS Online, and Business Analyst Web App—they became much more straightforward for instructors to incorporate into their courses. The tools have become easier to use and no software needs to be installed.
  • Data on business locations, suppliers, demographic characteristics, and consumer preferences has become available for multiple countries and often at very detailed geographic units (in some instances, down to the neighborhood scale).
  • There is recognition that GIS can help users analyze patterns, relationships, and trends as well as assist businesses to meet the needs of their customers and reach their sustainability and societal goals. Businesses exist to add value. Location is vital to all aspects of business and adds value to it. The world of business is in a state of continual change. Location analytics enables businesses not only to manage current operations but also to plan for and enable change.
  • There is a growing trend toward enabling students to be proficient in today’s “big data” world. This is partly why some universities are creating data science programs, which often are coupled with business programs.
  • Seeking to place graduates in meaningful careers, colleges and universities view location analytics skills as enhancing a graduate’s value to a current or future employer.
  • Business schools, by their very nature, are competitive. They see that adding location analytics courses and programs helps their university stand out and attract students.

For more about these and other developments, see the article Introducing Business School Students to Location Analytics.

Why should the geography community care about these developments? Consider the thousands of students graduating each year with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from hundreds of universities around the world. Think of these graduates’ influence in society. Imagine a world where decisions in the business world are routinely made by people who have applied geographic thinking to solve problems—people who began their geospatial journey while they were students. Within academia, business students and faculty keen on the application of location-based data and tools can be strong allies for your own geography department and initiatives.

Despite the adoption of the use of GIS in business programs, much work needs to be done. Many faculty members in business are still not aware of the value that applied geography brings to their programs, nor do they know how to use GIS. They may think that GIS is just for the geography department and is not applicable to their own work. Using any professional-level tool such as GIS presents a double challenge: faculty must at least be comfortable enough with the tools to use them in their courses, and they must understand how to effectively teach with them. Location analytics is part of a system—a geographic information system—that contains many interlocking components. Deciding which of the components to use in teaching, and in what manner to do, so takes effort.

This is a key time to work with your business schools. The disruptions to business and society caused by COVID-19 can be understood and mitigated through using geographic thinking and applying geospatial tools. The spread of disease, the actions taken to limit the spread, the disruptions in supply chains, the choices of how and when to reopen public spaces and university campuses, and a score of other relevant and current issues are rooted in geography. Businesses and business schools are more receptive than ever to tools that will help them deal with the disruptions, and geographers can help their business school colleagues learn to use these tools effectively.

With your grounding in geographic theory and practice, you—the geography community—could be of enormous help to business students and faculty. To assist you in this effort, see the Location Analytics in Business Education landing page, which includes location analytics tools to use in courses; ways to learn how to use these tools; and learning pathways, spatial data, curricular materials, case studies, and success stories. Key messages and a workshop syllabus are included and might be useful as you work with these colleagues. Such collaborative efforts could also provide you with resources and perspectives that you could incorporate into your own courses.