The New Generalist: OODA, Machine Learning and Decision Making Languages

Machine learning operationalization has come to be seen as the industrial holy grail of practical machine learning. And that isn’t a bad thing – for data to eventually be useful to organizations, we need a way to bring models to business users and decision makers. I’ve come to understand the value of machine learning for decision making from the specific context of tactical decision making as fitting into the common OODA loop for taking decisions. At first sight, these seem like specific ideas meant for a business and enterprise context, but further exploration below will reveal why this could be an important pattern to observe in ML-enabled decision making.

Lazy Leaders of a Specific Kind

I recently listened to a Simon Sinek talk in which he made make a rather bold statement (among the many others he’s made) – “Rules are for lazy leaders”. I see this phrase from the specific lens of using machine learning solutions as part of a decision making task – building which is almost existential to the machine learning practitioner’s workflow today. What I mean here, is that leaders who think in terms of systems rarely rely on one rule, but usually think in terms of how a system evolves and changes, and what is required for them to execute their OODA (“Observe-Orient-Decide-Act”) loop. I want to suggest that machine learning can create a generation of lazy leaders, and I mean “lazy” here in a very specific way.


A less-well-known sister of the popular Deming PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, OODA was first developed for the battlefield, where there is (a) a fog of war – characterized by high information asymmetry, (b) a constantly changing and evolving decision making environment, (c) strong penalties for bad decisions, (d) risk minimization as a default expectation.

These four criteria and other criteria make battlefield decision making extremely tactical. Strategy is for generals and politicians who have the luxury of having a window into the battlefield (whence they collect data) and have the experience to make sense of all this in the context of the broader war beyond the one front or battle. Organizations are much the same for decision makers.

OODA – Observe-Orient-Decide-Act – Courtesy Opex Society

As of 2021, decision making that uses machine learning systems has largely impacted the tactical roles, where there are decisions made on a routine basis with a days-long, hours-long or minutes-long decision window. Andrew Ng famously summarized this in his “AI is the new electricity” talk – where he discusses the (unreasonable) effectiveness of machine learning for tasks that require complex decision making in a short time frame.

Sometimes, strategic and tactical decisions are made on the same times scales, but this is rarely the case outside of smaller organizations. Any organization at scale naturally sees this schism in decision making scales develop. OODA is ideal for decision makers that are domain experts, in this limited tactical decision making setting. Such decision makers are rarely domain experts, but are adept functional experts who understand the approach to and the implications of success in the environment they’re in.

OODA Loop is an actual street named for the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act context

So where does machine learning operationalization fit into all this? Today’s decision making environment is data-centric and information-centric in all enterprises. What this means for the typical decision maker or manager, is that they are often faced with information overload and high cognitive load. When you’re making decisions that have dollar-value impact on the enterprise, cognitive load can be a bane beyond a point. Being cognitively loaded is absolutely necessary for any activity up until a certain point, when the tedium of decision making under uncertainty can affect decision makers emotionally, causing the fight-or-flight response, or can trigger other set behaviours or conditioned responses.

This brings us to the information-rich nature of today’s decision making environment. When we’re dealing as decision makers with lower level metrics of a system’s performance and are expected to build an intervention or take a decision based on these lower level metrics, we are rarely able to reason well in terms of more than a few such variables. The best decision makers still end up thinking in terms of simple patterns most of the time, and rarely broach complex patterns of metrics in their decision making processes.

Machine learning enables us to model systems by transforming the underlying low-level metrics of their performance into metrics of higher level abstractions. In essence, this is simplification of complex behaviour that requires high cognitive load to process. Crucially, we are changing the language with which we take decisions, thanks to the development of machine learning models. For instance, when we are looking at a stock price ticker and are able to reason about it in terms of confidence interval estimates, we’re doing something a little more sophisticated than thinking in simplistic terms such as “Will the stock go up tomorrow?”, and are probably dealing with a bounded forecast spanning several time periods. When we’re analyzing video feeds manually to look for specific individuals in a perimeter security setting, we ask the question “Have I seen this person elsewhere” – but when doing this with machine learning, we ask the question of whether similar or the same people are being identified at different time stamps in that video feed. We’re consequently able to reason about the decision we ought to make in terms of higher level metrics of the underlying system, and in terms of more sophisticated patterns. This has significant implications in terms of reducing cognitive load, allowing us to do more complex work with less time, and crucially, with less specialized skill or intelligence for executing that task, even if we possess a complex understanding of the decisions we take.

The Limits of our Decision Making Language

I want to argue here in a rather Wittgensteinian vein, that humans are great at picking up the fundamentals of complex systems rather intuitively if the language they use to represent ideas about these systems can be conveyed in a simplistic manner. Take a ubiquitous but well-known complex system – the water cycle. Most kids can explain it reasonably accurately (even if they don’t possess intricate deep knowledge of the underlying processes), because they intuitively understand phase changes in the state of water and the roles of components in the cycle such as trees, clouds and water bodies. They don’t need to understand, say, the anomalous expansion of water, or the concept of latent heat, in order to understand the overall process of evaporation, the formation of clouds and the production of rain and water bodies as a consequence of these.

OODA and other decision making cycles can be amplified by operationalized machine learning systems. ML systems are capable of modeling complex system behaviour in terms of higher level abstractions of systems. This has significant implications for reducing cognitive load in decision making systems. Machine learning operationalization done through MLOps can therefore have significant implications for decision making effectiveness on a tactical basis for data-driven organizations.

Implications and Concluding Remarks

Machine learning and the development of sophisticated reasoning about systems could lead to the resurgence of the generalist and the AI-enabled decision-making savant with broad capabilities and deep impact. For centuries, greater specialization has been the way capitalism and free markets have evolved and been able to add value. This has had both advantages and disadvantages – while it allowed developing societies and countries to rise out of poverty by the development of specialized skill, it also meant decelerating returns for innovative products, and more seriously, led to exploitative business practices that sustained free markets. Machine learning systems if applied well can have far reaching positive implications and free up large numbers of specialists from tedium, enable them to tackle broader and more sophisticated problems, while simultaneously improving their productivity. As a consequence, ML and smart decision enablers such as this may be able to bring even more people from developing nations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere into the industrial and information age.

Different Kinds of Data Scientists

Data scientists come in many shapes and sizes, and constitute a diverse lot of people. More importantly, they can perform diverse functions in organizations and still stand to qualify under the same criteria we use to define data scientists.

In this cross-post from a Quora answer, I wish to elucidate on the different kinds of data scientist roles I believe exist in industry. Here is the original question on Quora. I have to say here, that I found Michael Koelbl’s answer to What are all the different types of data scientists? quite interesting, and thinking along similar lines, I decided to delineate the following stereotypical kinds of data science people:

  1. Business analysts with a data focus: These are essentially business analysts that understand a specific business domain reasonably well, although they’re not statistically or analytically inclined. Focused on exploratory data analysis, reporting based on creation of new measures, graphs and charts based on them, and asking questions around these EDA. They’re excellent at story telling, asking questions based on data, and pushing their teams in interesting directions.
  2. Machine learning engineers: Essentially software developers with a one-size-fits-all approach to data analysis, where they’re trying to build ML models of one or other kind, based on the data. They’re not statistically savvy, but understand ML engineering, model development, software architecture and model deployment.
  3. Domain expert data scientists: They’re essentially experts in a specific domain, interested in generating the right features from the data to answer questions in the domain. While not skilled as statisticians or machine learning engineers, they’re very keyed in on what’s required to answer questions in their specific domains.
  4. Data visualization specialists: These are data scientists focused on developing visualizations and graphs from data. Some may be statistically savvy, but their focus is on data visualization. They span the range from BI tools to coded up scripts and programs for data analysis
  5. Statisticians: Let’s not forget the old epithets assigned to data scientists (and the jokes around data science and statisticians). Perhaps statisticians are the rarest breed of the current data science talent pool, despite the need for them being higher than ever. They’re generally savvy analysts who can build models of various kinds – from distribution models, to significance testing, factor-response models and DOE, to machine learning and deep learning. They’re not normally known to handle the large data sets we often see in data science work, though.
  6. Data engineers with data analysis skills: Data engineers can be considered “cousins” of data scientists that are more focused on building data management systems, pipelines for implementation of models, and the data management infrastructure. They’re concerned with data ingestion, extraction, data lakes, and such aspects of the infrastructure, but not so much about the data analysis itself. While they understand use cases and the process of generating reports and statistics, they’re not necessarily savvy analysts themselves.
  7. Data science managers: These are experienced data analysts and/or data engineers that are interested in the deployment and use of data science results. They could also be functional or strategic managers in companies, who are interested in putting together processes, systems and tools to enable their data scientists, analysts and engineers, to be effective.

So, do you think I’ve covered all the kinds of data scientists you know? Do you think I missed anything? Let me know in the comments.

Related links

  1. O’Reilly blog post on data scientists versus data engineers

Why Do I Love Data Science?

This is a really interesting question for me, because I really enjoy discussing data science and data analysis. Some reasons I love data science:

  1. Discovering and uncovering patterns in the data through data visualization
  2. Finding and exploring unusual relationships between factors in a system using statistical measures
  3. Asking questions about systems in a data context – this is why data science is so hands-on, so iterative, and so full of throw-away models

Let me expand on each of these with an example, so that you get an idea.

Uncovering Patterns in Data

On a few projects, I’ve found data visualization to be a great way to identify hypotheses about my data set. Having a starting point such as a visualization for the hypothesis generation process makes us go into the process of building models a little more confidently. There’s the specific example of a time series analysis technique I used for energy system data, where using aggregate statistical measures and distribution fitting led to arbitrary and complex patterns in the data. Using time ordered visualizations helped me formulate the hypothesis in the correct way, and allowed me to build an explanatory model of the system.

Exploring Unusual Relationships in Data

In data science work, you begin to observe broad patterns and exceptions to these rules. Simple examples may be found in the analysis of anomalous behaviour in various kinds of systems. Some time back, I worked with a log data set that captured different kinds of customer transaction data between a customer and a client. These log data revealed unusual patterns that those steeped in the process could tell, but which couldn’t be quantified. By finding typical patterns across customers using session-specific metrics, I helped identify the anomalous customers. The construction of these variables, known as “feature engineering” in data science and machine learning, was a key insight. Such insights can only come when we’re informed about domain considerations, and when we understand the business context of the data analysis well.

Asking Questions about Systems in a Data Context

When you’re exploring the behaviour of systems using data, you start from some hypothesis (as I’ve described above) and then continue to improve your hypothesis to a point where it is able to help your business answer key questions. In each data science project, I’ve observed how considerations external to the immediate data set often come in, and present interesting possibilities to us during the data analysis. Sometimes, we answer these questions by finding and including the additional data, and at other times, the questions remain on the table. Either way, you get to ask a question on top of an answer you know, and you get to do an analysis on top of another analysis – with the result that you’ve composited different models together after a while, that give you completely new insights that you’ve not seen before.

Concluding Remarks

All three patterns are exhilarating and interesting to observe, for data scientists, especially those who are deeply involved in reasoning about the data. A good indication of whether you’ve done well in data analysis is when you’re more curious and better educated about the nuances of a system or process than you were before – and this is definitely true in my case. What seemed like a simple system at the outset can reveal so much to you when you study its data – and as a long-time design, engineering and quality professional, this is what interests me a great deal about data science.