April 25, 2008

Predictive versus Descriptive Modeling: some points to consider

This is a fantastic article which I think very clearly describes the difference between descriptive and predictive analytics; I often find these terms blurred and blended very casually when discussing our work.

As the article suggests, understanding the difference along with the appropriate applications is fundamental to any good analytics shop. I personally believe the author is a little too critical on historically based projections and forecasts (basic descriptive analytics), but does raise some important limitations, including resource scarcity (the infamous pipeline), economic influences, and even potential competitors.

Woods also suggests productive applications of descriptive performance metrics such as “identifying broken systems” (perhaps a gift officer portfolio analysis). Many of us invest a great amount of effort in building complex and nuanced predictive models. I find it useful (and sometimes efficient) to conduct some descriptive models (average growth rate formulas, logarithmic projections) at the same time to get a wide analytics perspective. You may surprise yourself with what you might find, or discover something is missing…

Many organizations use historical analytics data as a basis for forecasting future growth, and establishing performance goals and budgets. This applicaton for analytics data can blur the distinction between predictive and descriptive data. Understanding this difference is critical to an effective analytics program. It generally falls to the analytics professional to ensure that the difference is clearly understood within the organization.

I'm going to start out with a couple of definitions. What do I mean when I say predictive versus descriptive modeling?

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