Toss a stone anywhere in a congested city and you'll hit a company that uses algorithms. The widespread use of this tool has grown so massive that, for better or worse, nearly every enterprise company on the planet has grown to depend on them.
Although algorithms have made it possible to do things that were thought of as impossible, they aren't the perfect solution for everything.
Let's dig into this complex issue to see if algorithms are the right fit for your company.
What is an Algorithm?
The first thing we need to do is figure out what an algorithm is. If you ask most people, they'll give a variety of answers, many of which are centered around making decisions for consumers. Within the realm of business application, that definition isn't too far from the truth.
Within the realm of computer science, an algorithm is a specific procedure for solving computational problems. But before you get too mired in that definition, understand that an algorithm isn't written in computer code. An algorithm is written in a human-readable language (such as English or Spanish).
Here's an example of an algorithm. Let's use an example of baking cookies:
- Preheat the oven
- Collect the ingredients
- Measure out the dry ingredients
- Measure out the liquid ingredients
- Combine the dry and wet ingredients to form a batter
- Scoop out balls from the batter and place them on a pan
- Put the pan in the oven
- Set a time
- As soon as the timer goes off, remove the cookies from the oven
- Remove the cookies from the pan
- Eat a cookie
Above we have a set of instructions (or rules) that outline the necessary steps to perform the task at hand (in this case, baking cookies).
We can then migrate such a set of rules to a computer program that might include the following:
- Based on input, inform the user what temperature to preheat the oven
- Inform the user what ingredients are necessary
- List out how much of each ingredient to use and how to mix them
- Describe exactly how cookie balls should be shaped
- Display time required to bake cookies
Now, you're starting to see how this plays out with computer programming. Algorithmic programming is all about writing a specific set of rules, with a predetermined number of steps, that instruct a computer how to perform a task.
Types of Algorithms
There are 7 fundamental types of algorithms in computer science, which are:
This type of algorithm divides a problem into subproblems. If a solution isn’t reached, move backward until a successful path is found that moves the problem forward.
This algorithm tries all solutions until a satisfactory outcome is achieved.
Divide and conquer
This type divides the problem into subproblems and solves each, the results are then combined to solve the problem.
This algorithm divides a complex problem into simpler subproblems, the results of which will be stored for future use.
A greedy algorithm finds an optimal solution at a local level to find a solution for the problem.
Randomized algorithms use a random number at least once during the solving of the problem.
This type of algorithm focuses on solving the simplest problem available, thus incrementally solving all the problems from simplest to most complex.
Benefits of Using Algorithms
There are several benefits to be had with algorithms. One benefit that many forget to consider is the very act of creating an algorithm helps businesses to develop very refined procedures. Because of the nature of algorithms, you must cut to the heart of a problem and know precisely the steps to solve it.
Although that may not make the solution an easy answer, it certainly helps you to get very intimate with the problem. As you get a more detailed understanding of how the problem is laid out and solved, you'll learn things about how your business functions.
Algorithms are also exponentially more efficient than humans at solving problems. Yes, you might have had to develop the steps and rules for the algorithm, but once employed it can take in massive amounts of data and process them to determine outcomes much faster than the human mind can.
Another major benefit of algorithms is that they allow your employees to focus on more important work. Once a staff is no longer having to crunch numbers to arrive at solutions for common (or not-so-common) problems, they'll be free to do other (arguably more creative or strategic) work. Not only does this make your business more efficient, but it'll also save you money.
Pitfalls of Using Algorithms
The biggest pitfall of employing algorithms is that they are only as accurate as how they've been programmed. If your developers create an algorithm that's either inefficient or inaccurate, you'll be plagued with problems.
Algorithms aren't the easiest things to get right on the first try, so you'll need to do heavy testing. And if you plan on adding AI into the mix (so your algorithms can learn), the complexity grows exponentially.
When your developers create an algorithm that's incapable of solving problems accurately, you'll find it can lead to very frustrated customers. Consider the Amazon recommendation algorithm. How frequently does it recommend a product you're actually interested in? If you spend a lot of time shopping on Amazon, you would think the algorithm should be spot on. That's rarely the case. Why? Because creating a truly accurate algorithm is very hard.
Finally, very big tasks and complex problems can be very challenging to put into algorithms. If your business does decide to wade into the algorithm waters, it's best to start with something small and simple, otherwise, you and your developers will wind up frustrated with a failed effort. Because of this challenge, you need great programmers to get the job done successfully.
Are Algorithms Right For Your Company?
In the end, it all depends on why you want to employ algorithms. If you're looking to deploy the means to make non-critical business decisions faster, and you have the developer talent for the task, then by all means you should start working with algorithms.
If, on the other hand, your business is already running efficiently and smoothly, you might consider testing algorithms for non-business decisions to see if there's any benefit to adding such complexity to your process.
Algorithms can be a cost-effective solution to solving regularly recurring problems for your business, but they must be developed and deployed correctly from the very beginning. If this is something you are certain your business can take on, then algorithms are probably a good fit. Otherwise, you might hold off until you are more certain this is the solution to a problem you may or may not have.