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CIOs: It's time to prepare for bring your own smart machine

According to Gartner Inc. analyst Tom Austin, there are three classes of smart machines: The doers, the movers and the sage. It’s that last category CIOs will need to pay attention to, which includes both virtual personal assistants and smart advisors, such as IBM’s Watson. Virtual personal assistants will learn what you do, who you work with and what you’re working on. Smart advisors, on the other hand, are subject-matter experts that will, say, help a doctor recommend medical treatment. Both are poised to push their way into the enterprise in the next two years, according to Austin.

In advance of the Gartner Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit, where he’ll be delivering a keynote on the subject, Austin sat down with SearchCIO to talk about what may very well become a “bring your own smart machine” environment and how CIOs can help the enterprise get started.

What will be the biggest pain point for CIOs when it comes to embracing the technology Gartner calls “smart machines”?

Tom Austin: Three words: security, privacy and innovation are at odds here. To really take advantage of these technologies, the CIO needs to find a way to let users use a range of these technologies rather than bet that any one vendor is going to have the right answer or a perfect answer. And it creates all of the problems you’re thinking of — from regulatory to security.

Every year, we publish the Cool Vendors special report. We are often focused on the big guys, and we’ve used this as opportunity to shine a light on smaller companies. And they represent things we think CIOs and CEOs should be looking at. We have one coming out on smart machines, and we’re surfacing five different technologies, all from little companies, that have a shot at revolutionizing how people work. We don’t know who is going to win, but we think the CIO needs to figure out how to allow diversity and slow natural selection to occur.

Can you give tangible tips on how the CIO can do that?

Austin: One of the things the CIO should be doing around virtual personal assistants is setting up some initial sandboxes wherein employees can come and play with any one of a dozen different personal assistants that will be out in the market by 2017. (By 2015, there are going to be two or three reasonably powerful ones, and the number will just continue to expand.)

But this becomes an opportunity for IT to figure out how far they can let these things loose. What do they have to manage versus what can they allow or rely on users to manage. I don’t know what the right answers for this are, but I know companies that wait and limit themselves to a single vendor take a significant risk of falling behind their competition.

Is that something CIOs and IT departments will easily be able to do?

Austin: I worry about the nature of the sandbox because, for [virtual personal assistants] to be effective, they have to have maximum access to everything the employee does. There was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal on figuring out what size phone best fits you, and you could put your hand down next to three different diagrams that would help you pick. This is not of that ilk, if you will. So the sandbox has to be one with a much broader perimeter. It may be setting up pilots and allowing various groups of users to individually use two or three of these. Again, it’s really important that people have the ability to choose more than one and then argue among themselves as to which one is better and learn from the process.

So will this turn into a — borrowing your term here — “bring your own smart machine” environment or are businesses going to invest and provide virtual personal assistants to their employees?

Austin: It’s going to be both. Microsoft, by the end of 2016, will have a virtual personal assistant that’s part of the Office 365 package. They’re already introducing some aspects or elements of it, but it’s not really enough to pass our threshold for a virtual personal assistant, not yet. Google will have this inside Google Apps for Business by the end of 2015 — that’s another Gartner prediction. Does that mean if you’re standardized on Microsoft, the only one you should look at is from Microsoft? I think it’s OK for companies to say, “We’re going to use Microsoft because we’re an Office 365 shop.” But they’ve got to figure out how to let people also use other ones. An organization called HighSpot is building out a direct competitor to the Microsoft product, but it will know what you’re doing not just inside the Microsoft tools — it will watch and provide advice and assistance when you’re working inside Workday and Salesforce.

If I were a Microsoft-oriented shop, I sure as heck would want to be using HighSpot to see how well it worked. Maybe let all of the sales people who are spending all of their time in Salesforce rather than Office major in that and minor in using the Microsoft product.

You consider virtual personal assistants to be one example of a class of smart machines you call “sage,” and you point to these as being the class CIOs should become familiar with. What’s another example, and how can CIOs exploit the technology?

Austin: I would look right now at Watson and at smart advisors. These are narrow but deep [content matter experts]. I would ask myself, “Is there a body of knowledge that we have inside our organization that we could exploit using a Watson-based smart advisor? Is there one we could sell to others? Is there a body of knowledge where we wouldn’t provide our knowledge but we’d advise off of that body of knowledge? How much would it cost to build that? Or are there others who’ve built applications like that?” There are several hundred companies today rumored to be building smart machines on top of IBM Watson. I don’t know how many will come out with a product this year, but I think the number is going to be scores and not a handful.

If you had to say where CIOs should get started — virtual personal assistants or exploiting Watson — which would it be?

Austin: Start with Watson. My recommendations are, 1) Watson is here and now and companies are building Watson-based applications today, so get in there and understand what businesses could you get into as a company based upon your assets and other people’s assets that would exploit Watson because it’s a new paradigm. And 2) [Understand] how other Watson solutions being built by others can help your business.  That’s 2014. Be ready in 2015 for virtual personal assistants.

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Excellent article on "Smart machines" & related info.