Finding the Way in the Dark

When a disruptive innovation detonates in an industry, large, well-established businesses often can be severely or fatally damaged. Think Wang after the IBM personal computer arrived. Or Tower Records after iTunes launched.

Conventional reasoning says these companies fail because they ignore or dismiss the innovation until it's too late, then get caught on a futile treadmill that never allows them to catch up competitively. In reality, plenty of organizations are more than aware of the coming innovations, and understand how disruptive the innovations could be to their business. Their main obstacle is that these innovations are not immediately profitable enough for them to develop answers to, and doing so would drain scarce resources away from their own ongoing innovative products or services.

But what if a company could disrupt itself?

IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty believes that companies, including hers, can do just that. In fact, she's banking on IBM thriving on such internal disruption in what she called the "cognitive era," during her recent Mastermind Keynote interview at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo.

Rometty explained that she hopes that in the next 20 years people will experience technology that marries digital business with digital intelligence. This marriage could be in an educational setting that helps students learn according to the way they learn best, or one in which toys match personalities with their child owners. But, most importantly, she envisions thinking systems that permeate businesses and their product offerings.

Or in other words, thinking -- about competition, customers, product improvements, product extensions, new markets and more -- will be more fully incorporated into operations, and will inform all levels of business. Not the way it is today, but aided by technology that can dig deeper for insights, move faster, perhaps even see the next evolution of the business. An innovation partner that is constantly asking, how do we get to next?

Companies, she believes, will use this cognitive ability to build real value, since they can predict outcomes and take actions to change them. Rometty cited work in Beijing, China that aims to predict the weather with a degree of confidence that could prompt the closing of factories in order to impact air quality and lessen pollution.

The trick, she said at the recent Fortune Global Forum is to "have the wisdom to know what must endure and what must change."

Now, of course, she is staking her bets on that future to IBM's Watson, the company's very disruptive technology. As you may know, Watson's potential lies in its ability to understand, reason and learn like humans.

I discussed how Watson Health is working with Memorial Sloan Kettering oncology experts to help doctors identify patient-specific treatments for cancer in a post this past summer. For reasons I explained in that blog, treating other conditions is sure to follow. For example, IBM also is working on prototypes around women's and maternal health, building on mobile health tools customized to the specific profiles of the user. Watson's learning the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines, and could next add personal health information, so the consumer can see and update her mobile profile.

For those of us obsessed with uncovering solutions to improve healthcare, the cognitive era could represent something that goes well beyond treating disease better. What's exciting about IBM's vision is that we may very well finally be at a place where we can solve some of the biggest, most entrenched healthcare conundrums.

Patient compliance. Individualized medicines. Safer clinical settings. Preventing epidemics. Health and poverty. Clinical trial designs with better odds for success and lower costs. Healthier foods. Broader access to affordable care. Solving the riddles of diabetes, Alzheimer's and behavioral disorders.

Why not?

According to Rometty, 80 percent of the world's data is "dark." The data is out there and of no use to organizations, because there is no technological way to make sense of it. Watson's "eyes" unlock that door by interpreting pictures and other unstructured data; imagine the possible insights.

Is this really the future of the way we'll solve business challenges, and drive revolutionary advances? Food for thought.

Let the cognitive era begin.