Are You Ready to Cognify Your Business?

Stephen DeAngelis

August 23, 2018

Recognizing the emergence and importance of cognitive computing, Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, tweeted, “In the very near future you will cognify everything in your life that is already electrified.” That’s a bold statement; but, it underscores how important cognitive technologies are going to become in the years ahead. They will become particularly important in the business world. Thomas H. Davenport (@tdav), a Distinguished Professor at Babson College, notes, “Cognitive technologies continue to make their way into the workplace, with many enterprises seeking to use tools such as artificial intelligence and chatbots to complement or even replace human intelligence, uncover insights, and automate mundane tasks and processes.”[1]

Benefits of Cognitive Technologies

We live in a world of hype and company executives have plenty of reasons for skepticism when it comes to adopting new technologies. Yet many analysts express optimism about cognitive technologies because they believe cognitive technologies are living up to the hype. Wayne Thompson, Hui Li, and Alison Bolen, colleagues at SAS, explain, “Artificial intelligence (AI) brings with it a promise of genuine human-to-machine interaction. When machines become intelligent, they can understand requests, connect data points and draw conclusions. They can reason, observe and plan. … We are at a new level of cognition in the artificial intelligence field that has grown to be truly useful in our lives.”[2] Once businesses start leveraging cognitive technologies, they will find multiple uses for their capabilities. That’s one reason Karima Mariama-Arthur, Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, believes cognitive computing is going to become the “next big thing” in the business world.[3] She explains:

“Combining insights from computer science (the study of computers and their algorithmic processes) with cognitive science (the interdisciplinary study of the mind and how it works) can advance human thought, shape outcomes in ways that transform the process of human capital development and enhance overall employee contributions and engagement. Additionally, these synergies can boost the quantitative and qualitative results that factor into an organization’s big-picture efforts to stay competitive and drive revenue.”

Implying that cognitive computing works the same way as the human mind is a step too far. Cognitive scientists readily admit we are only beginning to understand the human mind. The term “Cognitive Computing” is being used to cover a broad range of distinctly different techniques and capabilities. These techniques and capabilities include natural language processing (NLP); advanced search capabilities; image recognition; machine learning; artificial intelligence; pattern recognition; neural networks; knowledge graphs; and many more. My preferred definition of cognitive computing is the combination of semantic intelligence (NLP, machine learning, and ontologies) and computational intelligence (advanced mathematics). This combination of capabilities permits cognitive computers to approach problems in ways similar to humans. Citing work done by Deloitte Consulting, Mariama-Arthur writes, “Deloitte Consulting describes the wide-ranging benefits of the technology in this way, ‘Cognitive computing is a collection of algorithmic capabilities that can augment employee performance, automate increasingly complex workloads and develop cognitive agents that stimulate both human thinking and engagement.’ This, of course, is exactly the point.” She goes on to list three benefits cognitive computing can provide. They are:

1. Improved employee capabilities, contributions and performance. “Employees can benefit from self-learning algorithms that help them to do their jobs better and faster. Such programs support increased productivity by automating repetitive, low-value tasks such as collecting relevant statistics or updating client records with demographic, financial or even medical data. … In these contexts, cognitive computing represents unlimited opportunities for employees to expand thinking, improve contributions and enhance overall engagement. When taken together, these benefits also have an inherent multiplier effect.”

2. Higher quality data analysis. “Technological advances and endless industry contributions have made one thing clear. A sea of data is constantly being thrust into the business ecosystem. And, it’s unlikely to stop anytime soon. In fact, there’s so much information out there, that it’s extremely difficult for data scientists to keep up with — and manage — this ever-increasing stream of knowledge capital. Nonetheless, big data must be dealt with. … By integrating and analyzing big data sets, cognitive-based systems learn to interpret technical and industry-specific jargon, apply high-level reasoning — and in some cases, predictive modeling — to develop comprehensive solutions that result in a higher quality of overall data analysis.”

3. Enhanced business performance. “Businesses are always searching for more effective ways to leverage technology to their advantage. Whether seeking to deliver a better product or a higher-quality service, success almost always begins with capturing relevant information and using it to make good decisions. Cognitive computing helps businesses accomplish both goals by using smart systems to execute critical research, digitize manual processes, communicate with stakeholders, mitigate risk and even course correct where necessary. Just beyond information gathering and computation, though, exists the issue of the bottom line. The process of achieving competitive advantage, along with increasing sales, revenue and profits, is no small feat. To do so successfully, businesses must pivot by sharpening their technical acumen and elevating their performance within the marketplace. … Businesses that combine strategic planning, along with the use of these smart technologies, proactively shape long-term performance. Incorporating capability maturity models, as well as modeling and analyzing complex data, allows them to create the future in advance and test it for the best-case scenario.”

Although the World Economic Forum has declared data a resource as valuable as oil, like oil, data needs to be collected and refined. Cognitive computing systems can help turn data into knowledge.

Knowledge Management in the Age of Big data

As Mariama-Arthur noted, businesses often find themselves floating on a sea of data. Finding value in data requires knowledge management, which is defined as the “efficient handling of information and resources within a commercial organization.” Cognitive technologies are particularly adept at this task. Stephanie Simone observes, “Many technologies that fall under the AI umbrella are changing the way organizations search for and discover important information. The knowledge management space is on the verge of a new era in computing and information management. Cognitive systems, natural language processing, and machine learning, applied to both structured and unstructured data, impact how that information can be analyzed to create knowledge.”[4] Thomas Wisinski, Chief Knowledge Officer at Haynes and Boone, adds, “Artificial intelligence and cognitive computing are here to stay and will become the biggest disrupters this generation will ever see in their lifetime. AI and CC will disrupt the very way in which doctors, lawyers, accountants, and yes, knowledge management professionals practice their trade. … One day artificial intelligence and cognitive learning will supplant traditional knowledge management and arguably has already begun.”[5]

Supplanting traditional knowledge management doesn’t mean cognitive technologies will take over the world and threaten humankind. Like Thompson and his SAS colleagues noted, this new era promises genuine human-to-machine interaction. They explain, “With AI, you can ask a machine questions — out loud — and get answers about sales, inventory, customer retention, fraud detection and much more. The computer can also discover information that you never thought to ask. It will offer a narrative summary of your data and suggest other ways to analyze it. It will also share information related to previous questions from you or anyone else who asked similar questions. You’ll get the answers on a screen or just conversationally.” In other words, your cognitive computer will help you get smarter and make better decisions — and that’s good for business.

[1] Thomas H. Davenport, “Beyond ‘Doing Something Cognitive’,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 May 2017.
[2] Wayne Thompson, Hui Li, and Alison Bolen, “Artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning and beyond,” SAS, 2017.
[3] Karima Mariama-Arthur, “Why ‘Cognitive Computing’ Is the Next Big Thing for Business Growth,” Entrepreneur, 19 July 2018.
[4] Stephanie Simone, “Cognitive Computing and the Future of Knowledge Management,” KMWorld, 2 July 2018.
[5] Thomas Wisinski, “Is Traditional Knowledge Management Joining the Former Population of Dinosaurs?CIO Review, 16 June 2017.