IBM’s Ginni Rometty on R&D, Innovation Strategies and the Value of Watson

“Don’t define yourself by your product, or you’ll miss the technology shifts” is just one of the pieces of advice meted out by Ginni Rometty on a recent interview with Fortune magazine at the company’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C.Watson_top_right

Rometty, IBM’s CEO and Chairman, recently topped Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women in Business, and gave some interesting insights into the strategies which IBM uses to stay abreast of tech trends.

Research is evidently a major component of what goes on at IBM. The company employs 3 000 Ph.D.s — the largest research outfit in the technology industry — and has been the global patent leader for the past 20 years. Partnering with universities is an important part of this for IBM, as is maintaining good client relationships which can often yield surprising insights. A vibrant network into the venture capital community is another strategy employed by Big Blue, with Rometty listing social networking within the organisation and tapping current employees’ innovation as the final major factor which can be utilised by businesses to ‘look around the corner’ in any given industry.

Interestingly she also mentions that curiosity is perhaps the most important value for people in their jobs and attempts to create a culture of curiosity inside IBM via ‘strategic beliefs’ – making short term decisions which reinforce long term goals and thinking hard on what must endure as well as what must change within a company.

One of the most visible results of this innovation culture within IBM is undoubtedly Watson, the artificial intelligence device which gained notoriety two years ago when it beat out two champion contestants on Jeopardy, the US general knowledge game show. Rometty joked that it has since “been to medical school” and is now finding increasing value within a medical context.

One of these is at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center where a computing system based on Watson is currently being piloted. According to Dr Courtney DiNardo, the technology will definitely save lives.Watson_bottom_right

At an advanced cancer treatment center like MD Anderson, oncologists are likely to spot patients’ problems early enough to respond in time without the help of a computer. However, in a community hospital, physicians who don’t see as many leukemia patients or have the neccessary expertise might not notice in time. Watson will never take the place of a physician, but it can provide them with a treasure trove of information and expert guidance.

It’s also a major time saver – the system gathers information and presents it to the physician in summary form—but then also allows them to drill down deep to see the evidence upon which it bases its recommendations. Basically, it provides an expert second opinion.

It’s systems like this which Rometty sees as being the future – the concept of cognitive computing is not just on the horizon. It’s here, now.