Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Parlez vous Statistics?

As I sat debating the issue about whether we should have an informal case study 'test' for statisticians who want to work or intern with us, I read Andrew Gelman's blog article on a new course in statistical communication that he would like to teach sometime. It brought home to me the fact that if I went ahead with this test we would not have any new hires at all, since most would flunk out.

Why oh why do we not teach statistical communication at most universities or even at jobs? The lack of this skill has made proponents and users of the subject in the industry unable to communicate in the same language.

So what are some of the skills I would test for statisticians? Here is my list :
  1. Translating a business problem to an analytical and statistical problem
  2. Writing a proposal(or at least the proposed analytical solution part of the proposal)
  3. Creating a process/flow chart of the analytical solution
  4. Graphical presentation of data(raw, cleaned and analysed or modeled)
  5. Summarizing and communicating statistical results in both technical and non-technical ways(depending upon the audience). This would also include documentation of the project and an executive summary of findings
  6. Ability to write simple and elegant computer code and read the same(irrespective of software and writer differences)
  7. Collaborative work effort with other colleagues(programmers, consultants, academicians etc)
  8. Knowledge of statistical pitfalls
  9. Other communication skills(e-mails, blogs, discussions, knowledge sharing etc)
  10. Ability to read, understand and summarise research papers(good knowledge of work in relevant focus areas)
More organisations need to get involved with universities to encourage teaching of these skills at an early level to practitioners who plan to join the industry. Statisticians on the other hand need to move out of their comfort zone and ensure that they become adept at communicating their language to a wider audience. Once the above skills have been mastered along with a sound knowledge of statistics, we may finally be viewed as the geeks with the sexy job(as Hal Varian-Google's chief economist points out in an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly).

3 comments:

Prajakta said...

cldn't agree with you more on this..thsi is especially true for kids right out from univs where all one is interested proposing fancy and complicated stuff one has learnt as 'solutions' rather then really understanding the business problem.
-prajakta

Will Dwinnell said...

There are two sides to the issue you raise regarding communication.

Certainly, from the statistician's side, there are plenty of people who simply do not communicate well with non-statisticians. It is necessary to eliminate unnecessary technical detail. Technical types (statisticians or otherwise) have a tendency to focus on strict technical accuracy. This is a virtue until it impedes expediency: If you are right, but everyone ignores you, then what good is it?

From the other side, though, it is unrealistic to think that organizations can effectively compete in a technically-savvy, global market if business people make no effort to understand the numbers. Only the smallest businesses can be run on somebody's "gut feeling". Many businesses are numbers games, regardless of their industry. Business people who make little or no effort to meet statisticians half way are dooming their organizations.

By the way, since I am a picky technical type: It is spelled "parlez vous".

Anuradha said...

Have corrected the technical error(nay spelling) Will, I honestly missed it:)
Agree with your points but I still lean towards the argument that techies need to communicate much better in order for business people to get more number savvy.