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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Alex Trebek's Service Innovation Contribution.

The IBM Jeopardy challenge is captivating technophiles and game show fans alike this week as Watson – IBM’s artificial intelligence designed to answer natural language questions – competes against two all-time Jeopardy champions. Reactions to the highly televised demo have ranged from outright wonder to outright fear – the latter based on an idea that Watson may somehow show up tomorrow to compete for a job you’re applying to. (If that is the case, I’d suggest working on your trivia skills for the interview.)

The demonstration also has drawn me in. Not because of trivia or tech inclinations - both of which I may have - but because I’m a service geek.

In the last six months, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two Senior IBMers talk about the Jeopardy Challenge, which we now know as Watson: first Nicholas Donofrio at the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Innovation Conference and then Robert Morris, keynoting at the WP Carey Compete Through Service Symposium.

Both speakers shared a vision of the Jeopardy Challenge algorithm intelligence initiating a service quality revolution similar to what we saw in product quality in the latter half of the last century.

It makes for good strategy that the world’s largest service business positions itself to lead in a global service economy that for some countries already approaches 75% of GDP.

In the IBM view, service quality refers mostly to the ability for service encounters to produce a successful outcome. It's these service consistency & reliability problems – the type for which understanding of solving problems expressed in human language is critical – that are the future for Watson.

It makes sense. Variability among front line service employees, customers and in the service environment make for results that are more difficult to replicate than in product businesses. Putting Watsn-like technology on the front line of service would help reduce variance in the experience customer interaction-to-customer interaction.

But service quality isn’t just about reliability. Successful service experiences may be based as much on the less concrete experience dimensions of responsiveness, empathy and assurance as they are on outcome reliability. Because of this, prudence needs to be used in applying the technology. It carries the risk of improving reliability of outcomes, while at the same time reducing the ability to provide the less tangible responsiveness, empathy and assurance aspects of service quality that many service encounters are ultimately judged by.

While Watson is gaining praise for its second day dismantling of a pair of Jeopardy Hall-of-Famers, I’m still more interested in what it's going to do next.

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