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Eye on the i World: Adopting Watson-Based Apps - Some Examples

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IBM Watson apps available via the cloud are a more viable alternative than many SMBs realize.

Currently, there are a number of mental drawbacks for executives at IBM i and other enterprises that might benefit from using the IBM Watson platform. One is the misperception that Watson and its associated products primarily benefit only large companies with correspondingly “Big Data” sources. Another is that the traditional model of licensing software for in-house use gets expensive for Watson apps because the Watson platform itself currently runs only on high-end IBM i servers like the 750. A third is that going just by info available on the web can make it hard to get your head around what sort of use could be made of Watson and its associated apps in your enterprise’s specific environment.

To get a more realistic view of Watson’s potential, it can be helpful to consult with a third party that has the Watson expertise to analyze internal business conditions and lay out a coherent plan of action. One company that specializes in providing such services is eCapital Advisors, a major performance management and business analytics firm that’s an IBM Business Partner and also one of the largest resellers of IBM’s analytics software in North America.

Watson Can Work for SMBs

“While astute leadership at small to medium organizations have recognized the potential of analytics to help their businesses, until recently there have been barriers to adoption except for the largest businesses,” notes Lisa David, partner at eCapital Advisors. David specializes in being a client advocate that delivers value through collaboration.

“Historically, the investments required to deploy analytics have involved a combination of advanced software solutions, highly specialized personnel, and hardware investments,” she points out. “With recent expansions in IBM’s analytics product sets, there are now a broader array of cloud-based and on-premise solutions designed for organizations at all levels, enabling analytics and the business insights they drive to become more mainstream for organizations of all sizes.”

IBM’s Watson Apps

While it’s impossible to go into much depth here, a brief summary of Watson’s principal applications, listed here in order of their popularity, may be helpful. (As a personal aside, though, please note that except for IBM Watson Analytics, IBM itself doesn’t refer to Watson in any of the product names! A bit of an inconsistency in IBM’s marketing approach, perhaps?)

IBM Planning Analytics, previously known as IBM TM1, is available via the cloud and on-premise. It’s designed to improve planning, budgeting, and forecasting processes via a planning workspace that leverages data analytics. Planning Analytics is particularly useful for operational modeling and what-if analysis.

IBM Cognos Analytics (BI) became an IBM product with IBM’s acquisition of Cognos in 2008. Also available either via the cloud or on-premise, Cognos BI is designed to help users find insights from across data stores and then provide advanced reporting, data visualization, and analysis for that data.

IBM SPSS was originally a product of SPSS, Inc., which IBM acquired in 2009. SPSS is a predictive analytics suite that uses a combination of statistical analysis, data mining, and predictive modeling to make predictions about future business events. It’s also available both via the cloud and on-premise. 

IBM Watson Analytics is a cloud-based SaaS solution that can help organizations of any size uncover patterns in their data via analysis and visualization. It also enables natural-language inquiries in multiple national languages for accessing data to help users locate meaningful metrics. A freeware trial version for single users is available.

First Steps to Using Watson Apps

“So where to start?” David continues. “Having supported hundreds of IBM analytics deployments, we’ve discovered that there are some internal steps that will help set your organization up for success even before you start shopping for functionality.”

According to David, the first step involves categorizing changes an enterprise would like to make into three areas eCapital terms as Run, Improve, and New Value. Run-type projects focus on making changes that find greater efficiencies over existing methods to reduce costs or use of other resources for certain tasks or functions and often use IBM Planning Analytics, IBM Cognos BI, or IBM Watson Analytics. Improve projects are concerned with looking for ways to get better insights from available data and act on that data in a timely way and frequently use IBM Planning Analytics and IBM Watson Analytics. New Value projects relate to adding a completely new layer of functionality, such as starting a new line of business or integrating processes with a corporate acquisition, and most often involve use of IBM Planning Analytics and IBM SPSS.

“‘Run’ projects focus on business functions that could be more efficient (faster for example) with better processes and technology. Usually Run projects are about finding efficiencies that save money,” David clarifies. “‘Improve’ projects are about using data to make better predictive decisions so you make more money. ‘New Value’ projects are wholly new undertakings, so you’re not looking either for efficiencies or profitability in existing systems, but building something that is all new.”

An example of each type of project area may be helpful, drawn from case studies of three eCapital clients.

Transcendia, a manufacturer of plastic films for numerous applications, typifies a Run project. Originally, the company was relying on an outdated Windows XP in-house sales reporting system and an Excel-based system for month-end processes that was supported by a dwindling set of IT employees. Transcendia’s finance team needed a more streamlined solution that would require less time and effort to pull information together and that would reduce the risk of relying on an outdated system. By adopting IBM Planning Analytics for its financial and sales reporting, the company gained a transparent view of their data that helped it manage their sales, inventory, and other operations, as well as identifying previously unrecognized data inconsistencies and setting up improved data governance.

Allen Edmonds, a handcrafted men’s shoe company, needed to improve their reporting and analysis processes to support high growth in their retail sales that its previous system of intranet reports and Excel spreadsheets couldn’t meet. Adoption of IBM Planning Analytics helped the company improve reporting accuracy and consistency, automated their data analysis, and ended up saving 50 percent of the weekly time spent on reporting tasks.

Time was also an issue for Cantel Medical, a deliverer of infection-prevention products and a New Value example. Its former BI capabilities consisted of disparate data stores, legacy reporting tools, and spreadsheets. This resulted in analysts spending too much time manually pulling together data for e-mail reports to managers, who had to further subdivide the results to send to sales reps. Using IBM Planning Analytics and IBM Cognos BI, Cantel was able to roll out a sales analytics solution for its endoscopy business and formulate a global plan for extending the system to its other lines of business. Now rather than spending so much time gathering data, the company’s analysts can spend more time actually analyzing it.

Judge Me by My Size, Do You?

While clearly these examples are from medium-to-large companies and gloss over how the projects were set up, there are opportunities at many enterprises simply to enhance current reporting and analysis options or to ramp up processes to better serve the lines of business in which an enterprise is already engaged.

“Across the board, companies need to select a solution that will be agile, meaning being able to act on data in real time or close to real time so they can impact the business or department in a timely way,” David emphasizes. “Today’s environments are not static. You need to develop systems that bring the value you need today and will adapt to changes. Fundamentally, in today’s world, expertise isn’t knowing everything, it’s knowing how to be adaptable.”

“Most companies we work with identify a problem and have us come in to see what our thoughts might be in solving it,” she adds. “Generally, they are not having issues collecting data, they know they have the answers in there someplace. It’s pulling together all the data sources and aggregating it in real time so it’s actionable.”

Is it best to start considering whether a Watson option could be good for your enterprise by using a reseller or consultant?

“There is a big difference in consultancies,” is David’s understandable point of view. “These implementations require a deep understanding of the challenges the companies are trying to overcome (something that IBM leaves to its resellers) and understanding how the IBM solutions and other solutions and services can solve those problems. These are high-touch sales, not the least bit commoditized, even as the technology has become more accessible,” she concludes.

Whether you go the route of talking to a reseller, visiting with a consultant, or simply doing some research on your own, you might want to consider that cloud-based Watson services could make your enterprise a better version of itself than it is now, no matter what size your enterprise might be.

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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