Behind any major web service is a principle called machine learning. This refers to algorithms used to generate online product recommendations, search engine results, and GPS traffic directions. When these kinds of programs have access to large amounts of data, they can “learn” through example and respond to a wider range of inputs. An online store, for example, can use historical data to better predict future customer behavior or trends. By taking complex programming tasks and simplifying them, machine learning can allow your company to make more accurate inferences on your business's own data sets.

While this technology was once difficult to use and required teams of data scientists and on-premise software, cloud-hosted services are making these tools friendlier for developers to use. And in an age of data cultures, it's important your business looks to machine learning to make better data-driven decisions.

What is machine learning for businesses?

In a recent interview, the corporate vice president of Machine Learning at Microsoft, Joseph Sirosh, explained the machine learning process. "You take data from your enterprises and make several hypotheses and experiment with them. When you find a hypothesis that you can believe in ... you want to put that into production so you can keep monitoring that particular hypothesis with new data."

That's where machine learning comes in. Instead of tracking what's happening and adjusting your position, machine learning allows your organization to make better predictions about what will happen. Machines can sort and analyze huge amounts of data to create understanding for your business.

And while many businesses use in-house data analysis on private servers, new tools running on the cloud are speeding up the process. Instead of spending months creating an application application that can take in new data and product recommendations, software engineers have access to tools that can now build data-driven applications in mere hours.

Big business benefits in big data

While you can use machine learning for various tasks, you may want to think about using it to identify your business's most influential clients, monitor inventory so it’s at the right place at the right time, and predict results, thereby allowing you to take appropriate actions.

Businesses using machine learning have the competitive edge. That's because, with the amount of data your business creates each day and already has access to, machine learning has the edge over data scientists in processing the information faster and use advanced analytics to discover patterns. Machine learning can make the information your business already has more useful by showing ways to do what you're already doing better, solving problems, and even showing you ways to do things you may not have known you had the capability to do.

Humans behind the machine

Even as machine learning becomes more mainstream and, as Sirosh says about Microsoft Azure Machine Learning, "simple enough for a high schooler to be able to use it," the machines are still machines and require your employees to understand your data. With access to your business's data, your employees can form the right questions to test.

And, once you get a prediction, remember: it is just that. The machine can recognize patterns and reach outcomes much faster than humans can. However, it's up to your employees to come up with the right hypotheses to test and understand how the machine learning insights can apply to solving your businesses challenges.