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Analytics: Exciting & Uncormfortable

Written by André Voges

It’s only new until it is absorbed and accepted into existing bodies of knowledge.

Analytics is not just about the shiny new tool or the best (according to whom and for what?) algorithm, it is an art that harmoniously blends components of subject matter expertise, mathematical knowledge, technical know-how with the ability to communicate via verbal, written and visual methods. It is an iterative process of discovery and interpretation where you apply yourself, make informed decisions and then communicate the results to drive actions and apply changes to existing processes. As the field matures it becomes more and more important to have the right balance of skills (including soft skills) in a number of different areas. 

Powerful tools in the wrong hands have been dangerous in the past and will continue to be so (Refer to “The Bandwagon, written by Claude Shannon in 1956). The dangers of making mistakes in interpretation, using the wrong tool or method, drawing the wrong conclusions are very real and some of the implications of the capabilities may pose very difficult ethical and moral questions and therefore need careful consideration before application. Those practised in the art of analytics understands many of the potential implications and may, at times, get annoyed when others fail to understand the intricacies that need to be dealt with.

Analytics is a broad generic term and includes subject and functional areas, in which different people, tools and organizations can specialise. Generic analytics turned to advanced analytics and data science. There have been significant advances where many of the advantages of predictive analytics are being embedded in operational and business or even client facing systems. Cognitive analytics employs analytics strategies that aims to mimic our understanding of the human brain to solve problems. The list goes on. Many of these simply refer to the iterative and exploratory part of the process where there may be a specific need to deviate from current accepted practices or specialise in a specific subject or functional area to focus on and develop or mature a set of methods or tools due to some change in the environment (reduction in cost, new processing capability, new data source, etc). The new method typically requires additional investment in terms of time and money, it may require new skills and tools and while it may serve well for a specific question, it is unlikely to be a "silver bullet" that solves both the new question and the existing body of knowledge. Should the deviation or exploration prove to be useful, it will likely be absorbed and incorporated into the standard or accepted practices in a Darwinian fashion.

Generic analytic platforms will continue to evolve and incorporate new features while providing environments where new methods and features can be built or imported rapidly while standardised analytics will drift to specific applications and automated actions on other systems.

William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” The process of distribution is slower than we would like and contains pitfalls that we need to be aware of. Seasoned analytics experts make mistakes when dealing with data and fail to recognize data desserts and data mirages. Conditions may changes which leads to changes in results observed or assumptions made when building algorithms no longer being valid. We can still learn from the warnings by Shannon in 1956 and should take care to implement the systems and use the output carefully. 

Cross validation and multidisciplinary studies go a long way in reducing the risk, but

data collection is expensive and we often need to reuse existing data-sets where the intention behind the collection and/or the conditions may not always be clear to the person performing the study. We can be purist and refuse to use the data, or, we can choose the use the data and perform as many checks as possible. Ethical and legislative policies are struggling to keep up with the rate of changes observed in industry and it really is an exciting time to be part of the changes that shape our future.

Currently there is a lot of hype around artificial intelligence and the possibilities using machine learning. Many have strong feelings about what it means for society and the implications thereof, but most agree on the fact that man + machine (as opposed to man vs machine) opens opportunities that few thought to be possible in the recent past.

A powerful tool in the wrong hands have always been dangerous and will continue to be so and we need to do what is possible to ensure appropriate use and that those who use it understand the implications. In the past analytics used to be a separate and in many cases human specific task, but as the sub-disciplines mature we see the capabilities being embedded in other systems that may be business facing which means that the tools can be utilised by a new (larger group) of users, that we may no longer need a specialised group of people to answer generic questions, but can rather free up their capacity to be able to answer new questions and explore new methods and processes which in turn will be tamed, may be automated and absorbed in the bigger system and may become widespread.

Analytics may not be a comfortable area where you acquire a skill and practice it for the rest of your life, but it is extremely rewarding for those that are curious, those who constantly want to learn, grow and explore new areas, and those that want to see results.

We should also take care to ensure that the other skills apart from the pure technical ability to execute keep up and that practitioners are equipped to better understand the human process of grasping and internalizing information.

Common sense is not so common.”

Voltaire, A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary

If something was not communicated, it does not matter as the insight would most likely not be actioned, is not repeatable and will in all likelihood be lost. Our capabilities keep evolving and the roles that we fulfill changes over time and the environment is full of opportunities for those willing to seize it. Make sure that your insights deliver results.