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Trade Talk: Are we ready to become scientists?

Article ID:
February 2013, page 10
Joseph Rydholm, Quirk's Editor

Article Abstract

The author applies a Harvard Business Review article on the rise of data scientists to the marketing research industry.

Among the towering stacks of newspapers and magazines that weigh down the furniture in my office is a pile of recent issues of the Harvard Business Review. As with many of the publications I receive, I never have enough time to spend with each volume of the HBR and end up skimming the articles for the best nuggets. But every so often I come across one that demands a full reading.

The October issue featured a great piece by Thomas H. Davenport and D.J. Patil entitled “Data scientist: the sexiest job of the 21st century.” As the marketing research industry continues to wring its collective hands over the impact of big data – How will it affect what we do? Will it render us obsolete? – articles like this one offer useful insights into where we may need to go if we want to remain an essential – rather than vestigial – discipline.

Granted, their version of a data scientist would have a much larger purview than “just” marketing research, looking instead at enterprise-level problems and projects. And their insistence that anyone aspiring to data scientist status be a skilled computer code-writer might stop a number of marketing researchers, especially those who lean qualitative, at the door.

But in reading their thoughts on the skill set that data scientists should possess, I couldn’t help but see parallels to our own situation:

More than anything, what data scientists do is make discoveries while swimming in data. It’s their preferred method of navigating the world around them. At ease in the digital realm, they are able to bring structure to large quantities of formless data and make analysis possible. They identify rich data sources, join them with other, potentially incomplete data sources and clean the resulting set. In a competitive landscape where challenges keep changing and data never stop flowing, data scientists help decision makers shift from ad hoc analysis to an ongoing conversation with data ...

Data scientists’ most basic, universal skill is the ability to write code. This may be less true in five years’ time, when many more people will have the title “data scientist” on their business cards. More enduring will be the need for data scientists to communicate in language that all their stakeholders understand – and to demonstrate the special skills involved in storytelling with data, whether verbally, visually or – ideally – both.

But we would say the dominant trait among data scientists is an intense curiosity – a desire to go beneath the surface of a problem, find the questions at its heart and distill them into a very clear set of hypotheses that can be tested.

See what I mean? It’s the same cluster of skills – ability to see the big picture; curiosity; good communicator; tech-savvy; empathy; a flair for storytelling – that I and other well-meaning nags have been prattling on about in recent months.

In the vanguard

As the buzz from HBR and other influential business information outlets grows louder, to the extent that you can promote yourself internally as someone who has those skills – or has ready access to a team of people who collectively have them – you can position yourself and your marketing research function as being in the vanguard (which is where we’d like to be) rather than bringing up the rear (which is where we are often perceived to be).

And to further seal the deal, maybe you can start bandying about a new preferred job title: insights scientist.

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