As Data Science Becomes Even More Important, Executives Must Learn to Speak with the Experts

Data science has become big business, thanks to the big data revolution. Top data scientists formerly tended to take on relatively unassuming roles, but that has changed quite a bit. Today’s data science leaders can seem to hold the very future of particular organizations in their hands. That can leave executives and others feeling a little out of place, as communicating with these experts is not always easy. As the Jim Tsokanos Twitter feed has pointed out recently, though, there is little reason for any capable business leader to feel intimidated.

In fact, much of the difficulty that typically arises has more to do with a mismatch of vocabularies than anything else. While professional data scientists bring plenty of highly specialized skills and insights to the table, these capabilities alone are not what make communication difficult. Instead, it is often a simple lack of familiarity with the particular terms on one side or the other that will lead to communicative breakdowns.

For example, many business leaders today have heard of the field of machine learning, but fewer understand what exactly the phrase denotes. For some, it can seem a speculative-enough idea that any hope of forging a real understanding would seem to be out of reach. In practice, though, the machine learning that data scientists increasingly rely upon is relatively easy to comprehend in a basic way.

Rather than being the emergent form of intelligence that it is sometimes portrayed as in the media, machine learning today is more about brute force. By creating huge networks of computing resources, with each unit being capable of crunching through relatively simple problems at tremendous speed, scientists have enabled a kind of learning that was previously impossible.

This style of learning is today applied to everything from problems involving image recognition to the search engine queries that every modern person relies upon so much. While it can deliver plenty of helpful answers in these contexts and in that of big data in general, though, it is not a panacea. Far from being a distinct form of intelligence, machine learning of this sort is more of a powerful leveraging of existing forms of computing. Business leaders who understand what their data scientists mean with the phrase therefore have little to worry about.