IBM’s Watson Analytics Environment: A Transformative Approach to Address the Data Scientist Skills Shortage

By Joe Clabby, Clabby Analytics

About four years ago, after attending IBM’s Information on Demand conference in Las Vegas, I praised the company for making huge investments in analytics software and related infrastructure – but I also wondered “where are all the data scientist skills going to come from?”

I got my answer last week at an IBM event in New York City when the company announced a new, highly integrated cloud environment called “Watson Analytics”. This environment greatly simplifies the role of the data scientist – the person who looks deeply for new insights contained in enterprise and departmental databases. More importantly, it makes it easy to clean and enhance data; it offers a simple human to machine interface; and it presents resulting queries in graphic form using a “storyboard” approach. In short, Watson Analytics automates 80% of the rote manual data cleansing/query work, enabling data scientists to focus more strongly on analytics-related activities.

What I like best about this new offering is that it exploits IBM’s Watson cognitive (learning) environment to handle complex aspects of data management, while also exploiting the company’s vast library of query and analysis tools. The computer can learn how to structure data; analysis patterns can be stored and run over and over again as needed by the enterprise; and new queries are easy to formulate (type in a query in English and Watson interprets it and helps structure a response).

Further, the results of a query constitute a finding – and findings can be combined in a “storybook” fashion to structure an argument. For instance, the results of various queries might show factors that contribute to churn in the telecommunications industry. These storybook arguments can be presented to executive management to show the possible causes and effects of certain actions. Further, an IBM “data refinery” governs the use of data and ensures it is not corrupted by data scientists, while also enabling findings to be easily traced to their source. In short, Watson Analytics represents a new, more efficient, “intelligent” way to manipulate and present data – and a more effective means to structure that data into an argument that can provide enterprises with new insights.

The Demo

By simplifying the database query and presentation processes, Watson Analytics not only eases the job of the data scientist, it also opens the door for customer facing professionals to use these tools. Sales representatives and executives, product marketers, customer service representatives and other non-technical personnel should be able to structure their own queries, get accurate results, and drive new business opportunities using this new groundbreaking analytics environment. As one customer stated: “you can detect trends in advance and run your business more efficiently using this new Watson Analytics approach”.

This was highlighted with proof points at the New York event. IBM’s Watson Analytics demo was brilliant – it was easy to follow because of the highly graphical nature of this product, and clearly demonstrated that Watson Analytics is easy and straightforward to use. Essentially this demo showed the state of given databases (highly dependent on the reliability of the data); it showed how data can be fixed using simple data refinery tools. It also demonstrated how output could be placed in graphical story lines to help argue the point of the analysis. Unfortunately, at this time IBM does not have a URL link to a video demonstrating Watson Analytics – but a splash page found here provides illustrations and a short 90 second discussion of the product offering.

The Freemium Approach

To whet the appetite of the market in general, IBM will offer Watson Analytics as a cloud service available for free in limited form. IT administrators and data scientists who wish to experiment will be able to log on to IBM’s cloud, upload a fixed amount of flat files and play till their heart’s content with the new interface, along with the data refinery features, presentation graphics of the insights, and story line features. Users can run queries in the space-limited “Freemium” environment for years if desired – but if more data sources are needed, or more space is required, that comes at an additional cost.

The Cognitive Element

It is very important for readers to understand that Watson Analytics is a major departure from what other vendors offer in the analytics market. IBM’s solution is more than just a set of integrated data management and analytics tools – it is a combined cognitive system/analytics environment capable of supporting far deeper functionalities and insights. The cognitive aspect of Watson Analytics supports context mapping and navigation to help users understand their data in a broader context, and hypothesis generation features help users structure more insightful queries accordingly. As one IBM executive said: “cognitive systems understand your data – and this helps you analyze your business more effectively”. A business partner also stated that with Watson Analytics “you can have an English language discussion with your data – it is simple and straightforward”.

Summary Observations

From our perspective, IBM’s Watson Analytics represents a transformative event for the analytics industry – it uses cognitive computing combined with traditional analytics to develop new insights.

Watson Analytics also gives IBM a huge competitive advantage when it comes to dealing with Big Data databases. To illustrate this point, consider this quote from one of IBM’s business partners: “We demonstrated Watson Analytics to a prospective buyer who was also considering six other analytics products. A few hours after that demonstration that customer called me and told me that IBM’s Watson Analytics is their number one choice – and asked for a statement of work. He said that compared to Watson Analytics – all the rest of the competitors’ offerings ‘looked like kindergarteners’”.

Don’t look for competitors to introduce an environment or solution like Watson Analytics soon. IBM has invested heavily in cognitive systems development, and in business analytics development and acquisitions for over a decade, and it will likely take other vendors years to catch-up. If IBM can convince businesses and public sector organizations such as schools to adopt this technology, Watson Analytics could and probably will become an unstoppable force in the analytics marketplace.


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