I saw the future of analytics last night, and that future was fast.
Fast enough for Watson to jump ahead by a few thousand dollars, before Brad Rutter (and the audience) caught their breath and finally caught up.
With the questions getting more difficult in Double Jeopardy, tonight�s game one finale will no doubt be a barn burner. Blink and you�ll miss it.
Along those lines, Steve Baker had a great op-ed piece in the L.A. Times this morning that addressed some of the fears that Watson may engender to the casual observer. Whether he allayed them is a question for another day, but I think I can summarize his point this way:
The machines aren�t taking over. They�re taking us forward.
It's all too easy to see Watson do its thing and conclude that legions of such machines will soon relieve us of our brainwork and our jobs, if not our souls. In fact, machines like Watson will no doubt displace people who are paid to answer questions, probably starting with telephone call centers.But humans will adjust, as we always have. When our inventions, from tractors and cotton gins to spell-checking software, take over certain chores, we move to niches beyond the range of these tools. And believe me, after watching Watson in action for a year, I can assure you that there's plenty of room in the work world for the still-peerless human mind.
This, as I see it, is the true potential for Watson. Watson doesn�t �know� anything � at least not in the same way that we know things. But we can feed it raw data from our own vast stores of knowledge and experience. We can ask it questions that we thought were too difficult to answer. Or that we thought would take too long to answer. Or that we thought we had insufficient data to answer. And through its algorithms and sheer processing power, it can reveal things we didn�t know and reveal them sooner.
With every advance in technology comes a corresponding advance in our own capabilities. Watson can reveal insights about our business and our world that we can�t arrive at on our own. And ideas and insights are what drives us forward.
As Baker writes:
We've already outsourced long division, spelling and much of our highway navigation to machines. Now we'll look to them more and more to dig through mountains of data and come up with answers for us. This should free us up to do what remains uniquely human, at least for now: generating fresh ideas.
As I mentioned in my post, IBM Cognos 10 at Lotusphere: 10 Ways to Prepare, when IBM set out to revolutionize BI with IBM Cognos 10, collaboration became a key capability. What I really didn�t realize until after I attended Lotusphere was that IBM Cognos 10 collaboration would also revolutionize Lotusphere.
�Where once it was very much about Notes and Domino and their overwhelmingly loyal developer and customer base, this year the focus not only included the broader Lotus portfolio, but also various other groups within IBM such as Rational and Cognos�what was particularly interesting was the positive response that these integrations received from the audience�especially the integration with Cognos.�
The first inkling that we were making waves came when about 200 attendees showed up for my session called �IBM Cognos 10 Business Intelligence: Smarter Decisions. Better Results.� This session highlighted the features and benefits of Cognos 10 and introduced the audience to the collaboration capabilities of Cognos 10.
It was very gratifying to hear that my presentation was �stunning,� but one of the most compelling responses to the session was �I didn�t realize these synergies existed.� I now know that at least one attendee came away from my session with a new understanding of the power of combining IBM Cognos and IBM Lotus software to improve decisions and results.
But the most compelling demonstration of the impact we were having on the conference was the attendance for and reactions to the session held by Gene Villeneuve and Tina Groves, which was called �Collaborative Decision Making.� The session covered the integration of Lotus Connections and Cognos Business Intelligence v10.1, the value of collaboration and showed how tapping into the collective intelligence of an entire organization can help companies drive collaborative decisions, learn from the decisions and create a better corporate memory.
First, the session was sold out and �standing room only.� The enthusiasm of the presenters was infectious and at one point, an independent consult got up and announced, �I am not an IBMer and I think this is awesome!�
So, what does all this mean? To me, it says that the world is ready to embrace the revolutionary integration of collaborative and business intelligence software. There�s been a lot of talk in the last two years about how merging social networks, messaging tools, metrics and analytics could help corporations, but with the collaboration capability of Cognos 10 and our integration with Lotus Connections, IBM is at the forefront of showing that business intelligence and collaboration are a winning combination. We have the right combination of tools to help organizations use social software to make smarter decisions and reap the business benefits.
I believe that people really get the inherent value of collaborative BI to help make better decisions when they see it in action. It is something that changes the face of decision making in our organizations, yet is a natural extension of the way we do things today. The looks on the faces of Lotusphere participants when seeing it for the first time said it all.
My time at Lotusphere empowered me. The enthusiasm of attendees and presenters was contagious. How can you not be fired up by people who tweet, �Social business becomes a true IBM Software value by combining Lotus, Cognos, ECM and Rational� or �IBM way ahead of competition in business analytics and business intelligence. Cognos brings in social for better decision making?�
It's a beautiful day in Las Vegas.� The sun is out, the breeze is cool, and IBM Pulse (#ibmpulse) is now in full swing.� Lots of excitement and a packed agenda, but I thought that I'd take a moment to share a little insight into what to look for on today's agenda from a security perspective.�
As most of you already know, today is all about Business Partners, and the security agenda kicks off at 1:45 pm in room 120.� Steve Robinson, General Manager IBM Security Solutions, Rob Lamb, Vice President WW Sales and Clifford (Jay) Leary, Director WW Channels, will be hosting an insight session- IBM Security Solutions: Driving Revenue and Profits Selling.
Description: During 2010, IBM established a cross-brand, cross-company approach to security offerings by linking research, design, development, marketing and support to create the most complete and robust security portfolio in the IT industry. IBM Security Solutions allow your customers to address todays security challenges of cost, complexity and compliance. This session will include a discussion of IBMs security offering strategy and channel strategy, and provide you with examples of how Business Partners can increase revenue and profits leveraging IBMs offerings, support and incentive programs.
From 3:30pm - 5:15 pm there will be three different Business Partner Summit Breakout Sessions.�
In room 109:
BigFix:� Capitalize on Convergence: Leverage BigFix to Address the Market Convergence of Lifecycle Management and Security Configuration Management.�
In room 120:�
Security: Expanding your Security Practice with Tivoli ISS Offerings.
In room 115:
Security: Expanding your Security Practice with Heritage Tivoli Offerings
All of these sessions will be held twice during this time period, but you'll still have the difficult task of picking only two.� Good luck!
A few other things to keep on your radar.� The solution expo hall and welcome reception is at 6:30pm today and I hope to see many of you there.� If you'd like to stop bye and say hello I'll be the IBMer in the blue suit and white shirt.�
I'd also encourage everyone to use some of the different web assets that we have available.� The Pulse Smart Site is a great place to build your agenda and get a sense of what's going on around the conference.� Pulse Conversations is a tool that enables you to join the virtual dialogue using social media tools like blogging and Twitter.� I look forward to talking with many of you over the next few days and you can find online me on Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, and of course here, on the IBM Software Blog.�
For a glimpse of what's ahead in the coming days, I'll include some of what we saw last year.�
Cognos users: Clarity Systems (now an IBM company) was acquired back in October 2010, to extend the IBM Business Analytics offerings within the Office of Finance and signal the company�s commitment to address financial governance and risk management.
Clarity Systems delivers financial governance software that enables organizations to automate the collecting, preparing, certifying and controlling of financial statements for electronic filing, in support of mandates by the SEC and other financial regulatory agencies.
Clarity Systems software � in particular, Clarity FSR � significantly reduces the risks of potential error and the lengthy times finance usually needs to create and file financial documents such as 10-Ks, 10-Qs, annual reports, quarterly reports, board book, and any other statutory or regulatory filings. The software allows finance professionals to seamlessly integrate information for more efficient planning, consolidation and financial reporting.
Together, IBM now has a comprehensive portfolio of business analytics software for financial professionals to plan, forecast and analyze performance, identify and manage key business risks, and report to external stakeholders with confidence.
Make yourselves comfortable, will you? I think you�ll have a lot to talk about.
First off, let�s talk Vision 2011: The 8th annual conference for Clarity Systems customers takes place May 15-18 at the Sheraton Dallas hotel. Already a must-attend event for current Clarity Systems customers, Vision 2011 � now bigger, and better and newly titled �The Premier Event for Financial Management� � also offers much that should pique the interest and encourage the attendance of IBM Cognos software users as well.
Expanded tracks and content: We�ve expanded from the typical two tracks to four to accommodate what is now a much more robust IBM analytics offering for the Office of Finance. You can view the track sessions and build an agenda here or read about the tracks below:
Track 1: Financial Governance: External Reporting Managers and Controllers will learn how the right technology and proven best practices can improve timeliness and quality in reporting, reduce risk; better facilitate audits; extend ERP transactional controls; drive confidence and efficiency; and effectively meet new regulatory demands, such as reporting in XBRL.
Track 2: Close, Consolidation & Reporting: Controllers and Financial Analysts will learn how to identify gaps and opportunities in their existing processes and use technology to reduce risk and optimize internal controls. Sessions will address the entire close and consolidation process, as well as management and regulatory reporting.
Track 3: Performance Reporting & Scorecarding: Controllers and Financial Analysts will see how scorecards are used to quantify and communicate performance metrics. They�ll also learn how executive management can leverage technology to gain greater insight and make better business decisions.
Track 4: Planning, Analysis & Optimization: Controllers, Financial Analysts and FP&A Managers will learn how their teams can use advanced technology and best practices such as driver-based planning and rolling forecasts to drive greater efficiency in the resource allocation decision-making process.
Second, a fantastic keynote speaker former SEC Chair Christopher Cox: From 2005 to 2009, Cox drove the technological modernization of the SEC, introducing most notably the mandate for XBRL and the EDGAR submission system in 2008. Happily, these very innovations drove the creation of Clarity FSR. Under Cox, the SEC oversaw the creation of a taxonomy of more than 11,000 XBRL data tags that catalog every element of U.S. GAAP. Cox�s insights should prove invaluable to you as you drive the modernization of the processes within your own organization.
Third: You�ll learn a lot: like how the leaders lead using business analytics. Thriving in our fledgling recovery means anticipating and shaping business outcomes, driving transparency to manage risk and drive better decisions. The 2010 IBM CFO study shows that companies that invest in business insight and finance efficiency to do this deliver 20x revenue growth, 49 percent greater EBIDTA growth and 30 percent higher ROIC compared to laggards. At Vision 2011, you�ll see and hear how your peers are progressing down this most exciting path.
Fourth, you�ll expand your skills and professional network: Finance executives don�t get much time to network and up skill at the same time. But at Vision 2011, you�ll have the opportunity to do both in the company of like-minded professionals from around the world. Through workshops, roundtables and the odd coffee break you�ll have the chance to share best practices, swap business cards and discover new techniques to increase your own productivity. Plus, you�ll also qualify for NASBA CPE credits for selected sessions.
Last, once you get back home you�ll be better equipped to build a more effective finance department and begin your journey to becoming an �analytics-driven� organization. The theme of this year�s conference is �See Beyond� and by joining us in Dallas you�ll most certainly broaden your outlook and expertise in one of the most challenging and exciting professions on the planet.
Plus, I hear the weather in Dallas is nice that time of year. Will you be joining us?
If you�re the CFO of a big box home improvement retailer, do you really need to know how to mix paint?
Not necessarily, but it doesn�t hurt.
Carol Tome, the CFO of $68 billion home improvement giant Home Depot, does know how to mix paint. She learned how in the course of her weekly visits to stores. And this particular bit of knowledge came in handy in 2009, when the company was deciding whether or not to spend millions on new paint-blending equipment for the 2,244-store chain.
The CFO as "strategic partner"
Tome was profiled in a recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek.1 She is a prime exemplar of the growing trend�and growing need�to get CFOs more involved in operations and more active as �strategic partners� in businesses of all kinds.
CFOs and finance organizations in virtually all industries are now being asked to go beyond the traditional duties of processing transactions and delivering financial reports. They�re being asked to contribute their perspectives on decisions across the entire enterprise agenda�in operations, sales, human resources, supply chain and more. In fact, in the IBM 2010 Global CFO Study, when asked to rank the importance of all their activities, CFOs named �providing inputs into enterprise strategy� as their number one priority.2
Collecting and reporting on data no longer enough: CFO magazine
CFO addressed this topic in its December, 2010 issue in an article titled "Strategic Inquisitions." �It�s not enough to simply collect and report on financial data,� said CFO. �You have to figure out how to help your companies capitalize on it.�3 CFO interviewed a diverse group of CFOs who were actively involved in creating and implementing corporate strategy and found that �[f]or CFOs, being �strategic� often hinges on addressing the many tasks that turn an idea into reality.� One CFO observed that, �finance training allows [CFOs] to understand the business, end-to-end. They are able to look at a strategic idea and see how it will connect across the company, in terms of impacting current business or accelerating it.� He added, �I don�t know why companies divide �financial analysis� from business analysis.� They�re the same thing.�
Experience in operations a plus
Another CFO, from a multi-billion dollar restaurant company, cited his experience in operations and marketing in helping to make him a better strategic partner. �My operations experience gave me great respect for the other disciplines as I engaged them from an accounting standpoint. � I am better equipped and more confident in how I support and fund the growth initiatives that come out of the strategic planning process.�
But how does a CFO gain operational insight? What if you�re not familiar with the nuts and bolts (or the eggshell and semi-gloss) of your particular business? While it�s useful for any executive to get out on the �shop floor� from time to time, the fact is that the economic turmoil of the last decade has produced significant turnover in the ranks of corporate CFOs. Thus, the Carol Tomes of the world, with 15 years of experience at one company, are something of a rarity. But CFOs and other finance people can bring the business reality, if not the sights and sounds of the shop floor, to them, in the form of operational KPIs and metrics based on input from people in all areas of the business. And they can do that with financial analytics software from IBM.
Three ways to get there
Here are three basic ways that CFOs and other finance leaders can use IBM Cognos technology to gain and share insights about operations:
1. Model the business to gain a better understanding of the drivers that affect performance. Use multiple dimensional views that include product, customer, region and sales channel.
2. Use scorecards and dashboards to monitor performance and align individual or departmental goals with long-term company goals. Link operational and financial KPIs and connect those KPIs to broader corporate strategy.
3. Perform �what-if� scenario planning to examine options for changing business conditions. Include factors such as cash flow, customer profitability, product profitability, and revenue performance.
When CFOs see timely, relevant operational metrics alongside their financial metrics, they gain a broader view of performance and the operational insight they need to be strategic business partners.
It�s also worth noting that, while knowledge of operations enables you to serve your company better as a CFO; it can also open the door to that other C-level office that many CFOs aspire to. In the case of Home Depot�s Carol Tome, her deep knowledge of the operational side of the business has helped to make her, in the words of Bloomberg Businessweek, �a leading contender to be the retailer�s next chief executive.�
David Axson is the author of From Data to Decisions � Best Practices in Planning and Management Reporting (Wiley 2003), Best Practices in Planning and Performance Management (Wiley 2007) and The Management Mythbuster (Wiley 2010). He's also the keynote speaker forIBM Finance Forumevents in North America. In the second half of my interview, we talk about making analytics a daily discipline and how he explainsIBM Finance Forumto his finance peers.
When you talk about getting analytics through that"last mile"and starting where the pain greatest, what does that look like?
A couple of points to preface that. First, we really need to get analytics out of the back room. At the moment, in many organizations, analytics are something we do when there�s a crisis. �Is there a major problem? Oh, we�d better analyze the root cause to make sure it doesn�t happen again.� Or it�s something we do when we have some spare time, which isn�t that often. Analytics needs to be a core capability. It needs to be part of the weekly agenda for the Finance organization and for the broader management organization.
One particular area of analysis I�m seeing companies focus on today is Revenue at Risk. Do you understand the portion of your revenue that is at risk? What is your exposure in your customer base in different markets? If you were doing all your business in the automotive sector over the past two or three years, you�d have had a pretty rough time. If you were doing similar business but were focused on military and defense contracting, you�d have weathered the storm a lot better.
A simple example: I sit on the board of my children�s school. It�s a private school in northeastern Ohio. We did a revenue at risk analysis of our parent population to understand the occupation of the parents who were writing the tuition cheques. We wanted to know our exposure to financial services and brokerage, to real estate, to construction. We were pleased to find that we had a very broad and well-diversified parent population. If we had done that analysis in this part of Ohio 20 years ago, we�d have had a heavy concentration of parents in manufacturing ,which would have put us at significant risk when the manufacturing sector had a downturn. In fact, the school almost when bankrupt in the early 80s for exactly that reason.
Instead, we now have a high preponderance of professionals � lawyers, doctors, accountants. There�s still some exposure to manufacturing in the industries that remain, but also a high percentage of people focused on education. That provided us with a comfort level that our exposure to revenue at risk was limited. This analysis was done by a two-person finance team in a 500-pupil school. If they can do it, anyone can do it.
Have you seen companies out there that are taking a similar approach? Who�s getting it right?
Certainly retail and hospitality have had a focus on yield management and margin management for a long time. You see rich analytics there.
In the financial services sector, which has been battered, one company that stands out is American Express, which has been very smart about profitability in its customer base. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that the company was willing to write some of its customers cheques for $300 to take their business elsewhere. They�d discovered a segment of their customer base that cost them money, so it actually made sense to write them a cheque. There�s some cool stuff going on out there.
If you were sitting with a Finance professional, what would you tell them about IBM Finance Forum? What would they learn?
We�re seeing the global economy heal. There are some signs of growth � it seems a little patchy, but there are some green shoots out there. It really is time to think ahead. Finance largely took a time out over the last three years. We�re now seeing predictability return but we are seeing stability return. Now is the time to plan ahead and think about how Finance is going to make significant change over the next two years.
I�m going to talk about the Finance agenda for 2011 and beyond. Where we should be prioritizing our time and effort? There�s going to be very practical discussions about how we move forward, taking into account the lessons of the last three years, but also beginning to understand that this is the best opportunity we�ve ever had to integrate technology into our analytics and risk management practices, which as I�ve mentioned is no longer a nice to do, but imperative.
Turns out there's a little bit of O-town know-how in the code coursing through Watson's massive brain. On the eve of Wednesday's finale, Vito Pilieci of the Ottawa Citizen reported that a team from the Ottawa IBM lab contributed to the Java Virtual Machine that helps move masses of information through Watson's internal networks at astoundingly high speeds.
�The team here in Ottawa has been developing virtual machine technology for years,� said Rob White, director of the Ottawa software lab site. �It was very natural that the Java Virtual Machine would underpin the Watson project.� The Virtual Machine is a programming language that routes information quickly through a computer network. In effect, the employees at the Ottawa labs provided a central nervous system for Watson allowing it to react quickly much like a person feels a pin prick in the finger the instant it happens thanks to nerves sending a pain signal to the brain."
The team celebrated with a "Watson Watch Party" at Oliver's pub at Carleton University and entertained questions from curious computer science students after the show.
Left to right, they are: Andrew Low, Rick Kenny, John Duimovich, Karl Taylor and Charlie Gracie. In front with the J9 t-shirt is Ken Walker. Congrats, guys!
Hello all.���I'm Bryan Casey and as a market manager within the IBM Security Solutions organization I have the privilege of working with some of the smartest folks in the industry. It's an exciting time of the year to be in the security business with RSA happening this week and Pulse coming up at the end of the month. But before we all head down to Las Vegas, let's first take a quick stop in San Francisco.� �
RSAhas been dubbed as the conference where "the world talks security" and this year the world has been talking a lot about IBM.��With new product announcements, several IBM�led speaking sessions, client and business partner events, and the SC Magazine Awards,IBM's agendahas been full and exiciting.� While RSA is coming to a close, it's worth noting some of the key�conference highlights.�
�For the past 14 years SC Magazine has honored the achievements of the people and organizations that have made significant contributions within the field of IT Security. With over 650 annual nominations across a variety of categories, these awards take a very comprehensive view of the security industry. This year,�IBM Tivoli Identity and Access Asurance was selected as the Best Identity Management Application.� This is an great win for IBM�because the�dedication to providing innovative�security solutions as they relate people and identity is one of the core elements�of our overall strategy and of the IBM Security Framework.
�The�framework represents�the way we help�organizations approach security from a�holistic, business driven perspective, and IBM Tivoli Identity and Access Assurance was recognized as a leader�for its ability to help�organizations achieve�those results.� It gives the right users, the right access and information, at the right time.�
"It provides identity management from on-boarding users and assigning appropriate access rights, to changing user roles and modifying privileges, to terminating user access rights at the end of the user lifecycle.� Access management provides secure authentication of users, including unified SSO (enterprise, web, federated), and enforces access policies once the user has been authenticated.."
������ - SC Magazine
IBM Tivoli Identity and Access Assuranceadditionally reduces costs and headaches by automating several of the�key processes associated with compliance and audit.� To read more, you can read the SC Magazine Article by clicking here.�
It�was not the only IBM Security product that was recognized.� IBM Tivoli Access Manager for Enterprise Single Sign-On was a finalist for the Best Multifactor award, and IBM Security Network IPS was a finalist for the Best Web Application Firewall award.
I ask that question not only of Watson itself, but of ourselves in the long-running and fascinating relationship between humans and the machines they create. Both questions are inextricably linked, and both have multiple answers. I�ll posit one for each:
First, Watson could go into production quite quickly. Many of its components are currently available and several industries � healthcare and finance, for example � are ideal candidates for first-phase proof-of-concept deployments. As the global economy emerges from the turmoil of the past three years, these industries � not to mention the various functions within them � will be more in need of answers and insights than ever before.
As for the second question, Watson could usher in a new and exciting chapter in the story. Now that the lights have come down on the Jeopardy! set, it� s no longer man versus machine, but man with machine. The former may have made for entertaining television, but it�s the latter that we must focus on now.
To that end, I�m inviting you to tune into today's TED Talk on the Future of Watson at 11:30 AM ET featuring members of the research team. You can submit your questions using #ibmwatson or #askwatson I'll also invite you to add your voice to our ongoing exchange on LinkedIn. Finally, I'll leave you with a few quotes from the people who put us down this exciting new path. Ours is becoming a Smarter Planet. Watson may bring us there sooner than we think.
�This was a big accomplishment for people.� Dr. David Gondek
�I would have thought that technology like this was years away.� Brad Rutter
"I think we saw something important today.� Ken Jennings
"Wow. This is history." Dr. Jennifer Chu-Carroll
"This is about taking technology to solve problems that people really care about." Dr. David Ferrucci
[T]he true implications of Watson�s technology will come after it retires from the stage and pursues a workaday career in offices and labs. That�s when Watson will shed its avatar and revert to its true nature, that of a powerful machine working for us, not against us. Watson will be a tool [...] Once you regard this technology as a powerful supplement to human cognition � and not a replacement � Watson suddenly starts to look much friendlier.
Fourth: After watching Jeopardy! for two nights now it finally hit me: Yes, Watson is a tremendous technological achievement. But the real story is what it says about our own human intelligence. It was invented by humans � incredibly smart ones, at that � and filled with humanity�s collective achievements. That it took IBM researchers four years to get here is a testament to the complexity the human mind. Watson is a fantastic way to augment humanity�s collective wisdom and achievements by making them available � instantly � to more people in the most natural way possible. That�s big. Moon landing big. And befitting of a company heading into its second century with its original motto - THINK - more in evidence than ever.
Four years of research and the future of analytics are unveiled tonight at 7:30 PM Eastern, as Watson takes on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on a special three-day run of Jeopardy!
As of this writing, Watson remains in the lead in the Web visitors' poll at 55 percent. However, Brad Rutter has made significant gains at the expense of Ken Jennings, moving from single digits a few weeks ago to 26 percent, seven points ahead of Jennings. No doubt these numbers will shift again based on the outcomes of tonight's episode.
It's been a fascinating and fun ride so far, and if you're curious to know what Watson means for your own analytics-driven future, here are seven things you can do before tuning in:
Here, quite briefly, are the notes I took from last night's airing of The Smartest Machine on Earth on the PBS show NOVA. I had intended these to be paragraphs, but sometimes we don't get what we want. Enjoy!�
It�s official: Watson is a �He.�
10:08 PM ET: First reference to HAL.
The typical Jeopardy! contestant takes less than three seconds to buzz in.
Computers have historically struggled to understand subtleties and recognize objects, something that comes naturally to humans.
The question that got it all started: �What if a computer could play Jeopardy! as well as Ken Jennings?�
Great quote from David Ferrucci: �Maybe this isn�t as impossible as we think it is.�
Watson researchers plotted Jeopardy! winners and their scores in a cloud. �It was a scary metric,� wrote researcher David Gondek during the live blogging session. [But] to Dr. Ferrucci, �the cloud made it clear that Jeopardy! was about answering accuracy and confidence.�
Early struggles:Jeopardy! champions play at a 90 percent accuracy rate. Early versions of Watson struggled to get even 10 percent of the clues right.
Early Watson systems were fed hundreds of Jeopardy! questions. To answer them, Watson scanned and cross-referenced keywords in its database, but confused Edmund Halley with the Pink Panther.
Why Watson is different than Deep Blue: Chess is �easy� for computers to understand because the rules are clear and well-defined. The board has a fixed number of squares, each piece can only move in certain ways and there's only one goal: Capture the King. However, computers play it differently than humans. Whereas humans approach the game using strategic concepts (control the center, attack from the flanks), computers look at every possible move and play out the repercussions 40 steps ahead. It�s sheer brute force. Jeopardy! by comparison, is much less predictable.
Can you teach a computer common sense? Yes, up to a point. You can write code that tells it that �dead is forever� but the approach will never help it understand basic principles needed to answer sophisticated questions. For that, you need to pursue Machine Learning.
Machine Learning is the way computers learn that �A� is an �A,� whether it�s rendered in Helvetica, Uncial or Crayloa. Of the dozens of pieces of data that go into an answer, Machine Learning is the technique that helps it decide which pieces are important and which to drop. It replaces brute force with flexibility. It�s the same technology that�s used to generate predictive weather models and Netflix recommendations. Once Watson researchers turned down that path, the system�s accuracy headed straight for the champion cloud.
Watson�s audition in front of the Jeopardy! producers was �one of the tensest days� the team ever had. In the early days, the system wasn�t ready for prime time. The performance was too erratic and had trouble pronouncing Roman numerals: "Who is...Henry Veeee?"
Ferrucci: Watson is an information-seeking tool capable of understanding your questions and dialoguing with you to make sure you get what you want.�
To my ears, that last point sounds a lot like the conversations between IT and Business in a typical business analytics deployment. Could Watson be the bridge between these two solitudes?
Such was my experience last night during the Jeopardy! online contestant trial. 50 questions covering everything from mollusks to luddites to ancient mariners and it was all over in less than 10 minutes. It's doubtful I was competing against Watson, but if the comments on the Jeopardy! Facebook page were any indication I was competing against nearly 200 other people.
The questions were served up automatically through a Flash interface. It wasn't a complete replication of the show experience because I didn't have to respond in the form of a question and thankfully, spelling didn't count. The toughest part was having the categories change with each question, which made it impossible to build up some momentum by increasing my familiarity with specific domains on the fly. Understanding the category titles added another processing step and with only 15 seconds to answer I thought I'd have a better chance of getting it right relying on the clue itself. This, I imagine, is why so many contestants focus on entire categories rather than skipping across them and it will be interesting to see if this is how Watson will plays when it has control of the board.
So, how did I do?
Unless any of us gets a call in the next few weeks we'll never know, because the Jeopardy! team doesn't reveal the answers. But of the 45 or so I did answer I was either completely certain or pretty confident of being right. I didn't guess on any, choosing instead to skip them altogether.
But even if I don't get the call it was an exciting, if taxing experience. "This must be what a database feels like," I thought to myself. "Non-stop queries coming at you from every conceivable domain, and a pressing demand for an immediate, accurate answer every time. And no prizes for second place."
Sounds like a typical day in the life of a business analytics professional, doesn't it? What if there was a better way to serve up all these answers?
The Yukon Quest kicked off last Saturday and upon hearing the news I immediately thought of another important kick off � namely, IBM Finance Forum 2011, our annual event series for Finance professionals that begins today in San Jose.
What? You don�t see the connection?
Let me explain.
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile sled race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Physically and mentally grueling for driver and dog alike, the Quest traverses some of the harshest, coldest and loneliest of terrains. Not for the faint of heart, only the most serious mushers need apply.
Yes, "mushers" is the right word.
For 25 years, the Quest was a fixture in the calendar of one Frank Turner (no relation). Turner raced in the first Quest, won in 1995 and set a course record that stood for more than 12 years. Now retired from racing, Turner runs Muktuk Adventures, where from his home off the grid he leads less taxing one-day excursions, conducts team-building exercises and conducts leadership seminars.
If you have three hours to spare on a Sunday afternoon (as I did last fall), Turner will gladly give you a tour of his facilities, where you can meet more than 120 dogs and snack on home made brownies in his living room as he recounts tales of endurance and lessons for success.
An important transformation
There�s been a transformation in sled dog racing, Turner says. However fixed in the popular imagination, the crack of the whip has given way to a more enlightened, more analytical team-building approach. Now, he says, the best mushers build their teams over months of rigorous training and careful evaluation to learn each dog�s disposition, strengths and weaknesses. Some dogs excel in dry snow, some like the slush. Some dogs love running into the wind, others prefer to draft.
These days it�s not the best dogs that win, Turner says, but the best team. It�s not how hard you can push your dogs, it�s how well you can manage them to keep them motivated and happy. To that end, mushers must pay careful attention to each dog�s physical condition and keep precise records of each dog�s injuries and overall health throughout the race.
"Keenly and continually attuned" to their surroundings
Further, Turner explains that the best mushers are keenly and continually attuned to their race surroundings. One of his anecdotes involves a previous Quest winner (a former Green Beret) who rearranged his dogs in response to the sound of the snow coming off his sled rails. Why? Different sound, different snow.
What does all this have to do with Finance?
I see two connections. First, the transformation story. As David Axson will recount at more than 20 events across North America (Speakers and event details for European events are forthcoming) high-performing Finance departments are pursuing their own transformation away from pure cost-cutting toward a more agile, analytical and risk-aware mindset. Both transformations have been shown to drive better outcomes for everyone involved.
Anticipate and shape outcomes
The second (and for me more interesting) connection is the increasing need to anticipate and shape outcomes in your favor. Much like the most successful mushers, top-performing Finance departments don't explore analytics simply when there's a crisis. Instead, they make acting on insight a daily discipline that keeps them continually attuned to changes in their markets. Further, they build teams with the skills to anticipate and model different scenarios. They predict changes, understand their consequences, and act quickly to reallocate resources to maintain momentum, profitability and competitive advantage. They�re what the most recent IBM CFO Study refers to as Value Integrators and you�ll learn how to become one at IBM Finance Forum 2011.
Change your perspective
Neither sled dog racing nor Finance is for the faint of heart. The Yukon Quest is the pinnacle of the former, attracting the most experienced and most ambitious mushers. Whether you�re a CFO, or hoping to become one, you�ll be doing yourself a favor by attending one of our events. You may not yet be the lead dog on your team, but that doesn�t mean you can�t take steps now to change the view. Mush!