Bill Huey
Bill Huey

"Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.”

This quote from Samuel Johnson underlies a fascinating story about IBM’s Watson supercomputer that appeared recently in the New York Times. It contains an object lesson for all communicators who must deal with various silos and their biases in large organizations. It also provides an excellent example of Peter Drucker’s dictum that the challenge “is to get communication out of information.”

For months after Watson’s 2011 victory on “Jeopardy," America was bombarded with messages about the new computing phenom, named for IBM’s founder. Watson was friendly and personable, cute, even adorable. But it developed that perhaps Watson wasn’t as smart as he was cracked up to be.

According to the Times story:

“IBM declared in an advertisement the day after the Watson victory, ‘we are exploring ways to apply Watson skills to the rich, varied language of health care, finance, law and academia’.

But inside the company, the star scientist behind Watson had a warning: Beware what you promise.

David Ferrucci, the scientist, explained that Watson was engineered to identify word patterns and predict correct answers for the trivia game. It was not an all-purpose answer box ready to take on the commercial world, he said. It might well fail a second-grade reading comprehension test.

His explanation got a polite hearing from business colleagues, but little more.

‘It wasn’t the marketing message,’ recalled Mr. Ferrucci, who left IBM the following year.”

The Times story went on to place the marketing message in context:

“The company’s top management, current and former IBM insiders noted, was dominated until recently by executives with backgrounds in services and sales rather than technology product experts. Product people, they say, might have better understood that Watson had been custom-built for a quiz show, a powerful but limited technology.”

IBM’s CEO at the time, Ginni Rometty, though trained in computer science and engineering, came up through the sales ranks at Big Blue. This introduces the possibility of what researchers at the NeuroLeadership Institute have termed an “experience bias.” That is, “we assume our view of a given problem or situation constitutes the whole truth,” according to NLI.

The lesson for communicators in the case of IBM’s Watson? If you are at a great science and technology company, or are the curator of an organization with a large reputation, listen to your scientists, product engineers, researchers and the like. Don’t be taken down the rosy path by the sales and marketing crew or the bean counters. The techies may bore the bejesus out of you, but if you listen you will learn, and isn’t it your job to listen and develop a credible narrative from what you learn?


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Carbon Man (Kindle, 2010).