IBM Watson is smart. Is he gonna be Thought Leader?

Watson has what it takes to be a thought leader. No wonder, because he is the child, so to speak, of a company that is avowedly pursuing thought leadership as a management strategy: IBM. Have you even heard of Watson, the ingenious computer system with artificial intelligence from IBM? You may have come across him recently on various websites via video clip. At first glance, it looks like a string of testimonials from people who know Watson. But no, it is Watson himself who is speaking to you. So not directly, but as a doctor, as a schoolchild, as a hipster on a crowded bus, as a businessman and so on.

You should either be fluent in English, or be able to read German subtitles quickly, because the commercial is only available in the original. A German version is obviously missing so far.

Watson is Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Computing

What do you say, you don't want Watson? Not even for at home, for the children? After all, Watson can give really good, sound and often funny answers to your questions.

In an IBM video clip we see Watson talking to Bob Dylan. In an entertaining dialogue, Watson's machine summarizes Dylan's creative work better than any editor at Rolling Stone could. Admittedly, to my knowledge this commercial is also only available in English. Watson obviously can do everything but German. But Watson is really clever and honest in this conversation, you have to give him credit for that.

But back to the thought leadership - and to the core of Watson. Watson is part of IBM's overarching, international thought leadership campaign "Smarter Planet". This campaign is one of the most successful thought leader campaigns ever.

Watson is of paramount importance for IBM, for the international business, for the positioning and for the future of the brand. An extremely high economic goal is linked to Watson. You can read more about this in this article in the online magazine Heise.

What does cognitive computing have to do with thought leadership?

Watson is based on Cognitive Computing. This term has a relatively meagre 535,000 search results at Google (as of June 2016). For comparison: "Big Data" has more than 57,000,000 search results and "Industrie 4.0" (a rather German term) alone has 850,000 search results. Watson is the crowning achievement of cognitive computing - but this term does not really seem to have prepared the ground yet. Very, very sad.

Because cognitive computing is the solution to the knowledge problems of mankind. It is the ability to network and reinterpret our entire world knowledge from the most diverse disciplines and to use it to find unimaginable, innovative solutions for tasks such as combating all widespread diseases, establishing world peace, and prosperity for all people, as well as protecting the environment.

But, I'm sure the IBM people could explain it to you better. Unfortunately, they don't. At least, perhaps not in that clear-cut way. But interpreting Bob Dylan's lyrics, Watson can demonstrably do that. And this spot was seen on YouTube millions of times. Only, Watson or "Cognitive Computing" could develop a bit more internationally. At least a look at Google Trends (as of March 2016) suggests this.

Thought-Leader Watson in the Celebrity Trap

Perhaps you already know our Thought-Leader Matrix. We have found that thought leaders fully satisfy two important dimensions. They enjoy the highest authority with their target group and they achieve wide reach or popularity. Experts may have high authority, but they are known to only a small number of people, often insiders.

This is the problem of many Nobel Prize winners, for example. They are thought leaders in their field and thus help humanity. But their high authority is not reflected by a corresponding reach outside their closest (scientific) community. This is perfectly fine if they do not claim to want to involve and mobilise other people in their mission.

In any case, Watson is a clear expert - probably for just about every category of knowledge. He has already proven this in 2011 with mass appeal on US TV on the "Jeopardy" advice show. There he beat the show's multiple champion. 20 years ago the IBM Deep Blue computer checkmated the chess world champion Garri Kasparov. Today we have arrived at nameless rating professionals of TV shows.

Watson is a TV celebrity - and shares their media fate. After all, the length of time we pay attention to winners of ratings shows is short. And that would be disastrous in our Attention Economy for a brand like IBM. IBM Watson is a celebrity with a long reach. But he may only remain so as long as the "viral advertising campaign" for Watson is on air. And then? Watson will only anchor himself in our consciousness if he, or IBM, builds up further authority.

What is Watson missing on the road to thought leadership?

Watson has what it takes to become a thought leader. With this form of artificial intelligence, IBM can mobilize countless people for many of mankind's great concerns and, with Watson's support, turn them into inventors and researchers. In a FAZ article you can follow the debate about Watson's usefulness quite well.

Watson brings a lot to the table to achieve thought leadership for modern computing, for artificial intelligence and for IBM's dominance in the global high-tech markets. But he is missing something important: closeness to people.

Please, will you say? Did you make a mistake on the blog and ended up on an esoteric site? No, not exactly. You may have heard of Love Brands? Or of emotional brand bonding. Or customer confidence. All these are blurred, emotional terms that cannot be measured immediately in dollars and euros. And that's where Watson sees the problem and the solution.

How can IBM turn Watson into a thought leader?

Watson absolutely needs three more components that are indispensable for thought leadership positioning. To achieve thought leadership for IBM, Watson needs a customer-relevant identity, customer proximity through storytelling, and a community that drives Watson's plans in the marketplace.

1. Watson needs an identity

You may have thought until now that Watson was named after the legendary and imaginary assistant of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John H. Watson, who helped him as a faithful friend and companion in the trickiest of criminal cases? Far from it. The supercomputer was named after the first president and founder of IBM, Thomas J. Watson (1874-1956).

This is certainly identity-forming and exciting for IBM as an "employer brand" and for the employees of the group. But perhaps not for the viewers of Jeopardy and perhaps even less for the people who need to be mobilized for Watson.

The resonance of a brand has to do with the associations and fields of meaning that make up its brand name. So IBM might do well to charge that name with positive and forward-looking messages. After all, it is said to have been IBM boss Thomas Watson himself who in 1943 said: "I believe that there will be a need for perhaps five computers in the world."


2. Watson needs closeness to people

Watson is shown to us as a talking, round, blue and atomic globe on a screen. Alternatively, Watson is symbolized somewhat eerily by people in the video clip speaking his text. This may not be the best way to make Watson relevant to broad sections of the population - and that's what IBM is currently advertising for.

Do you still know HAL 9000? In Stanley Kubrick's film "2001 - Oddyssey in Space", this was the supercomputer of a spaceship that made all decisions for the crew autonomously. And at some point HAL came up with the idea of eliminating crew members. IBM's Watson is occasionally compared to HAL 9000, potentially feeding people's fear of being patronized by computers. Even the CEO of IBM (Ginni Rometti) is therefore campaigning for more trust in Watson. In an article in the online magazine Business Insider, he stresses that "there is no need to be afraid of Watson".

If IBM wants to bring Watson's technology closer to people, professional storytelling is needed. Basic rule number one of thought leadership storytelling for abstract products and concepts: Tell personal stories in which your (high-tech) product has made people's lives and the planet a little better in a concrete and demonstrable way.

Surely IBM can already show real doctors who have demonstrably improved diagnoses with Watson's help and show patients who have been cured. People will get involved, help and carry Watson to the top of the thought leadership goal line.

3. Watson needs a thought leader community

Thought leaders create an attraction that mobilizes people for their cause. People want to be part of the thought leader's activity because they identify with him and his values. This is what happened recently with companies like Apple, Zappos or Amazon.

We at Thought Leader Systems are not super-technicians and we salute the IT genius of hundreds of IBM employees who created Watson as a constantly learning cloud solution. But we do know a little bit about thought leader business models (just: Thought Leader "Systems").

And we wish IBM would make its Watson accessible to everyone, not only to strengthen the computing power of the system, but also to increase the power of the people who want to integrate Watson into their lives. Google has done this, for example, with its "Watson" (you allow the analogy...) called "Google Search". And with Google+ maybe not so much. 


Will IBM Watson become a part of our lives?

IBM emphasizes that Watson's hardware fits into three pizza boxes. If so, the company should make its "cognitive computing" as natural and attractive as pizza - and just as easily accessible. Then Watson belongs in every student dormitory where people brood over start-ups. Then Watson belongs in every university and school that uses this computing power for small research projects. And then Watson belongs in all developer circles that create a platform and a mass movement with the IBM Watson ecosystem, as only open source movements such as WordPress have done recently.

Note that it is less about the technical accessibility and API interfaces (Accessibility) but more about the pull effect on customers and partners (Attraction) that IBM could create for Watson through excellent thought leadership marketing.  So, in conclusion, a call to all developers, programmers and IT experts among us. Get involved in the Watson Ecosystem or the Watson Developer Cloud. By doing so, you will help people who can make the planet a better place with Watson. And you will help Watson on his way to Thought Leadership.