You’ve got to hand it to IBM, they are nearly always one step ahead of the herd. CEO Virginia Rometty has recently been talking about cognitive systems. Of course it could be dismissed as yet more trendy vendor hype, but actually I think (atypically) that it is much more than this. For several decades businesses have used computers as glorified filing cabinets and desk top calculators – dumb systems is a term that comes to mind. Right now we are learning that computers can take historical data, find patterns and provide input to future decisions. It’s a small step for computers but a giant leap for the way business managers view technology – and it will take a while to sink in. We call this data mining and more specifically predictive analytics. But even this is just a single step toward an end point that might seem more like science fiction than everyday business reality.
Cognitive systems imply that our systems will sense what is happening, fine tune processes and steer the business in real-time. These ideas are not new. Forty years ago the visionary Prof Stafford Beer was writing about this very thing, although his thinking was half a century ahead of its time. He likened an organization to a living creature that needs to sense its environment, process the information and react accordingly. I had lunch with him one day a few years before he passed away. He was clearly frustrated at the slow pace of progress, but had he been around today I imagine he might have had a smile on his face.
Just as intelligence has separated man from all other creatures, so cognitive systems will separate the successful from the struggling businesses. There are many, many hurdles on the way and not least disruption of traditional roles within the organization. But technology has always been the creator of wealth and prosperity, and cognitive systems represent a major technological innovation. There will no longer be any excuse for business managers to strut around their organizations claiming they are ‘not technical’, as if it bestowed some superior status. If you are not technical, you won’t be anything because business is increasingly mathematics and algorithms – like it or not.