Throughout the day, every day, employees make decisions that have an impact on businesses. There are all sorts of decision and organizational models that are common, many that still cling to the old industrial (hierarchical) model of structuring and managing a business. In the information age making decisions is a critical business function of what we like to call information workers (or sometimes knowledge workers). I suggest though, that the definition of information worker has changed quite a bit in this post-industrial era. With the explosion of hand-held computing devices (smartphones, tablets and special purpose handheld units) more and more workers are connected to the corporate network, corporate systems and corporate knowledge assets all the time, no matter where they might be working. Remote workers, not at one time considered "information workers", now interact regularly with technology to manage work, report progress and get access to real time, on the spot information designed to make their job easier and more accurate. They also have the capability to communicate with other employees to discuss work, ask questions, get assistance and share progress and experience knowledge / insight gained during an activity through many more channels than email or voice. With this new access and connectivity almost all workers are (or can be) information workers.
Many businesses are still today using a very hierarchical management model that is also a hangover from the industrial age. In that model controlling information created organizational power. Today, with all the communication channels and ways to share content and information available to employees it is naive to think that anyone can "control" information. Information simply flows around any attempts to block / control it. Some companies are starting to realize that sharing information and an increased level of transparency is not only the new organizational model, it is also inevitable, or at least it will be huge advantage to recruiting and keeping the best talent. Without that employee dvantage it will at the least be a competitive disadvantage and at worst a contributor to the ultimate failure of a business.
Making better business decisions is tied to business networks that connect people to each other and to relevant data / information in real time and in the correct workflow context. I've talked about this as a part of a successful enterprise social network (ESN) for a few years now. This real time connectivity and access moves employees away from the old model of using historical data only to make decisions. The decision process is a real time process that is distributed throughout companies and across the entire employee base. There's an additional element in modern decision processes, the growing availability of assistive technology in the form of artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive systems. These new computing aids can provide everything from memory aids to active suggestions and advice.
AI technology predates the newer cognitive systems, and provides the foundation of capabilities that can, in specific circumstances replace human actions / tasks. AI can be used for things like speech recognition or executing tasks like translations. On top of these basic compute functions, cognitive systems provide employees access to systems that learn and interact naturally, extending what both computing and employees could do individually. In other words cognitive computers can interface in normal language and learns from interactions and from unstructured data. These capabilities are far beyond the old "expert systems" that could only interact inside a strict rules based structure. This additional capability opens up a variety of use cases. These include:
- Companies and employees are dealing with a growing mountain of data or big data and trying to make sense and thus use of that data. While some is structured much of it is unstructured. Cognitive computers can help employees turn big data into smart data and ad the essential capabilities of sensing, predicting and inferring. That capability can make simple business decisions, relieving employees to focus on more complex and critical problems, but with the additional help of the cognitive computer.
- These cognitive capabilities in particular are very valuable in providing assistance to employees by providing a new, higher level expert system that can interact with the decision-maker.
- Cognitive computers can manage a huge amount of data. this could be used to asist in complex problem solving and diagnosis. In healthcare, for example, physicians must manage a large amount of sensor data, combined with test, discussion with the patient and the experiences of thousands of other physicians that are dealing with or have dealt with similar symptoms. Rather than trying to somehow track this data and analyze it as an individual the cognitive computer assists the physicial in the diagnosis, eliminating possibilities and tying together broad pictures that an individual simply couldn't possibly manage.
- Cognitive computers, using natural communications capabilities, can analyze massive amounts of visual and voice based data and provide back visualizations that make analysis by humans much more accurate in much less time (or even at all).
- For decision support cognitive computers add a wide variety of capabilities like the manupilation of a wide variety of data sources ranging from company databases to social web generated; complex model building and analysis; collaborate with employees in visual and language based interactions; and expert advice and analysis.
We're only scratching the surface of the capabilities offered by cognitive systems, as new applications emerge rapidly. The underlying benefit though, is providing real time assistance with decision-making that is more effective, more accurate and much more informed. Combine that with the network capability to identify and connect the "right" employees with the "right" data in real time and in the correct context and the new decision "system" is a serious competitive advantage as well as a productivity booster.