Collaboration and culture change key to Watson's win
Delaney Turner 270003RQ8K Delaney.Turner@ca.ibm.com | | Tags:  social-business ibmsoftware ibmwatson
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Can you really get lone-wolf scientists to work with each other? Can you get them to put aside their egos and career paths to create something that could change the world?
You can if you did what David Ferrucci did.
Last Sunday, The New York Times ran a great piece by Watson's Principal Investigator in which he describes the role collaboration played in overcoming the formidable cultural barriers standing between himself and a computer system smart enough to win at Jeopardy!
First on the list was the risk of failure: Most scientists I approached favored their own individual projects and career tracks. And who could blame them? This was an effort that, at best, would mingle the contributions of many. At its worst it would fail miserably, undermining the credibility of all involved... I was willing to live with possible failure as a downside, but was the team? .
Then there was the solitary and ego-driven nature of scientific research: Scientists, by their nature, can be solitary creatures conditioned to work and publish independently to build their reputations. While collaboration drives just about all scientific research, the idea of “publishing or perishing” under one’s own name is alive and well.
As we now know, Ferrucci was able to entice enough researchers to his cause (the team grew from 12 to 25). And yes, to a member they were indeed brilliant and accomplished. But Watson was a project unlike any other. Ferrucci knew he'd need to change the way team members worked with each other.
This is where collaboration comes in. Ferrucci writes:
From the first, it was clear that we would have to change the culture of how scientists work. Watson was destined to be a hybrid system. It required experts in diverse disciplines: computational linguistics, natural language processing, machine learning, information retrieval and game theory, to name a few.
Likewise, the scientists would have to reject an ego-driven perspective and embrace the distributed intelligence that the project demanded. Some were still looking for that silver bullet that they might find all by themselves. But that represented the antithesis of how we would ultimately succeed. We learned to depend on a philosophy that embraced multiple tracks, each contributing relatively small increments to the success of the project.
Ferrucci and Watson succeeded because of vision, collaboration and a willingness to break down cultural barriers. Whether you're at Lotusphere or simply following along, I invite you to think about where those attributes can take your own organizations.