The geeks are giddy at the news of Watson – IBM's multi-million dollar entrant in Jeopardy – thoroughly trouncing a couple of smart guys. Some in the investment community are pretty jazzed up at the potential for computers Watson's rousing victory promises, as well. Most noteworthy is a quote from a guy named Ross Mauri who said, "The implications of this technology in the coming years are going to be phenomenal". What makes his observation significant is that he is IBM's Vice President for Enterprise Process Transformation. I would suggest that the implications are phenomenally disastrous if enterprise leadership cannot distinguish trivia from useful information, and Watson has only proven to be the ultimate Rain Man of trivia.
Just about everyone is familiar with the Einstein quote that not all that can be counted counts, and vice versa. The term for that which can be counted but does not count for much is 'trivia', and this is the area in which computers in general, and Watson in particular, excel.
Put another way, last week I was doing a One Day Assessment at an aluminum extruder and, as I walked through the plant, the engineer giving me the tour and I talked about the unhealthy supremacy of direct labor cost in management decision making. His observation was right on the money – it is given so much weight because it is so easy to count. The implications of Watson – potentially dangerously phenomenal implications – are an increase in reliance on things that are easy to count – but don't really count for much.
Expertise at trivia is no great accomplishment. By the nature of my job I am pretty hard to beat at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. Just last week I learned how potatoes are planted, flag poles are made and some cool stuff about DNA processing technology I have sworn not to discuss. I can tell you how cattle are groomed for competition, what happens inside the device that fires Tomahawk missiles, how to skin the bark off a tree at very high speed and how cartons of orange juice are formed, filled and sealed. I know an amazing amount of such arcane stuff simply because I have been in over 75 factories in the last year. While all of that makes me a fascinating conversationalist at cocktail parties, it would be a serious mistake to interpret any of it as evidence of wisdom or even common sense.
In Simple Excellence Adam Zak and I describe the way in which the most profitable companies we hae seen distill their business down to the basics – the opposite of the complexity computers seek to master. More signficant, we describe how those companies make very effective decisions with equal inputs of data, common sense and practical wisdom, and an ethical concern for all of their stakeholders – the things Einstein's quote described as counting even though they can't be counted.
Business is already way out of kilter with a bias toward 'fact based' management, which limits decision making to only those things that can be quantified and counted, largely disregarding the critical things that are a lot harder to neatly dump into a data base for the likes of Watson to cull through.
Watson's victory is little more than a parlor trick – mild amusement for management. To read any more into it is to head further down a destructive path management has already followed for too long.