Cognitive Computing and Knowledge Management: Sparking Innovation
[The following article is a transcript of a video of Susan Feldman's keynote session at KMWorld 2015 in Washington, DC. View the full session video at the bottom of this page.]
Innovation is perhaps the biggest test of a knowledge management system. We're used to capturing information. We're used to locking it down. We're used to accumulating it. We're used to creating some kinds of access to it. Innovation makes us go far beyond that. What I'll talk to you about today is what innovation is. What the process for coming up with a new idea actually is. Then I would like to talk to you about cognitive computing because I think that it solves some of the problems that our older, traditional technologies cannot really address adequately. I'll end by talking a little bit about where I think knowledge management has to go.
Let me start by telling you a story. Once upon a time, there was a biologist and physicist and they went for a walk. The first thing they started to do is to fall into a conversation about a fairly arcane subject: DNA. The physicist was interested in the electrical properties of DNA. The biologist knew a fair amount about that because he was also a chemist and something of an inventor. They talked and they walked and then the physicist went back home, continue to ask questions, do research, etc. The biologist kept on sending information but really went back to what he liked to do best which was tinkering with ideas and things because he was something of an inventor. After several years of research, the biologist, Esther Conwell, won the National Science medal in 2010 for her work on the conductive properties of DNA and how to enhance those because she was interested in semi-conductors. The inventor was my Dad, and that's the kind of thing that he enjoyed, which I think is a story of what happens when you have two innovative, open-minded people.
Ingredients of Innovation
Let's take a look at the ingredients. First of all, you need a problem or research direction. In this case it was semi-conductors. You also need opportunity. You need cross-fertilization, in this case biology and physics, which are adjacent but certainly not congruent. You need colleagues who, like you, interested in discussing. In the research that I've done over the years on the process of innovation, I've found that innovative inventions of various kinds, and discoveries tend to be sparked by good food and a bottle of wine. It's almost a requirement. You need curiosity. You need that serendipitous encounter to create the aha moment, a happy accident. You also need information and you need support both in the sense of an organization willing to let you model around and support in the sense of the information that is provided to you.
What is innovation? Well, it's a lot of things. When President Obama presented the medal to Esther Conwell, he said that innovation is fueled by a combination of caffeine and passion. Obsession actually. Certainly, it requires a new idea, but it's rarely entirely novel. It builds on what came before and that should be of importance to knowledge managers. Game-changing innovations occur at the boundaries between subjects and organizations. It's a group effdort rather than an individual one. Developers, users, partners, and colleagues all have a part in it because they provide not just the ideas but also the need that spurs the innovator to solve a problem. It tends to occur at the lower levels of organizations. Those of us who are at the top of the organization, beware. It may disrupt industries or companies for good or ill and it is both risky and rewarding. That's innovation.
What's the business case for supporting innovation? Because very often it doesn't pay off. Those of you who have R&D departments know that that's the case. First, revenue. If you're successful, it drives revenue because you are first to market. That means you are able to dominate that market and in fact that's what's happening with cognitive computing right now. You can attract and keep customers, build customer loyalty and market buzz, shape that market the way you want. It helps you avoid disruption and stay competitive. It helps you expand into new markets.
By creating a fertile environment for R&D, you also have a pipeline of new ideas to avoid stagnation and being bypassed by competitors. You attract outstanding researchers who soon burn out and leave if you don't provide them with that kind of organizational support and latitude because innovation is a fragile flower. It gets trampled very easily.
On my second job, a very long time ago, I got hired by someone who called me in after two weeks and said, "I heard that you are innovative, Susan. You haven't had any ideas yet." She was right. I never had another one for her.
The Innovation Process
What is the innovation process? It's quite different from what goes on in knowledge management normally. First, you have to have that idea or interest. There's no question about that. You have open discussions, wide readings, you bump into people, you talk to them in the hallways, you go out to dinner with friends who are not in the organization, and gradually you discover that there is a need, which you find intriguing.
This is a very individual process even though it requires other people. You define the problem. You eliminate some of the common ideas. You discover that other people have been there before you and you give up and do something else. Then something interesting happens: you've taken in all this information, you've stuffed it into your head, and you let it simmer.
We had a graphic designer who is tremendously innovative. He used to go home and take a bath. I'd go for walks. Other people do other things. They knit. They cook. They garden. Whatever it is, they have to distract the front of their brain so that the back of the brain can allow that ferment to happen and that's great fun. But if you have too tight a deadline, you're not going to follow that elusive idea which is half-formed because you don't have time for it. You have to meet the deadline and the idea gets squashed. That's a very important thing for organizations to understand. These people who are innovators need some direction, but they also need a great deal of latitude and freedom as well.
You have to explore broadly. (This is where cognitive computing and knowledge management coincide, as I'll discuss later). You have to filter and winnow and focus and rethink and iterate and go back to the beginning and start all over again. Finally, you have something concrete enough to develop and off you go, maybe. You find the problem, do research on it, then go off and develop. You commercialize it, you throw it into the market place and you see what the consequences are--big revenue, losses, whatever it turns out to be.
You identify the problem by talking to customers, talking to colleagues, talking to sales people, and talking to other researchers. Coming back is very iterative, as most of you know. You do research and you redefine the problem.
Again, you iterate. Test it on the market like at social media. Do competetive intelligence. Then you might commercialize it and see what happens after that.
Discovering What We Don't Know
There is set of information tasks that we try to support with knowledge management, research, and text analytics. Any sort of information access and management tool is aiming to support all of these tasks, but the tools rarely do. The problem is that we have separate tools. The creation tools may not be well integrated into the process. If they are, the fact is that in innovation we're on the phone, we're sending emails, we're discussing in the hallways. We're not capturing that.
The reasons why we make decisions and change directions are poorly known and can't be modeled for the process to happen again. We're losing information that's falling off the table. We're pretty good at finding in some ways. We're not so good at discovering what we don't know and uncovering patterns we don't know enough to look at. That discovery and uncovering are key to innovation, because what we want is to find out what we don't know so we can invent it. We're pretty good at analyzing information and getting better. The discussion is very often not integrated into this whole picture and the decision-making is fairly diffuse. These are information tasks that we need to be able to support.
The Role of Information and Analysis Tools
The role of information access and analysis tools in this case is to improve exploration and discovery, to introduce related information. Although we want related information, we don't want all the information in the world.
How do we manage to promote those happy accidents without burying the searcher? We have to help with the information-finding process to eliminate queries perhaps in favor of exploration of some sort. We have to help. This is where our traditional systems also fall down, in helping the user to frame the question broadly, helping the user understand how to ask for the information they need if they don't know they need it. We used to have knowledgeable intermediaries who did a lot of this, but that's not what's happening today.
The tools have to help us understand and discover unexpected relationships across all sources of information. They need to search on a concept level rather than on keywords because those are also limitations. They need to unite multiple sources of information no matter what format they're in or where they reside. They need to collect and share and discuss. They need to enable information and people to interact in one place. Then of course they need to save us time so that we can look at enough information in order to have those ideas. That tools that have started to emerge over the last couple of years are key to supporting these expanded roles for knowledge management. Cognitive systems are the next logical step.
As an analyst, I've been watching the markets develop all kinds of tools: business intelligence, search, text analytics, graphics of various kinds, reporting tools, creation tools, and drawing tools. They all solve a piece of a problem.
We used to call that "Sneakernet." The Sneakernet that goes on in the creative and innovation process is overwhelming. It's a tremendous waste of time because it means you're constantly rummaging back through stuff that you did 10 years ago because you know you did it already. In fact, when I was preparing this talk about innovation, I had to go back to research I did 10 years ago because I knew I'd done something about this, but I really didn't remember where it was. It was really hard to find it; desktop search is terrible. Yet, there it was in the back of my head.