Software // Information Management
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5/20/2009
10:47 PM
Neil Raden
Neil Raden
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IBM System S: Not for Everyone

IBM's announcements about "System S" along with its "Smarter Planet" campaign have really caught my attention... It's quite an achievement, so far as I can tell, but the breathless enthusiasm of the press/bloggers/analysts has me a little put off. Here's why...

IBM's announcements about "System S" along with its "Smarter Planet" campaign have really caught my attention. As on old number cruncher, I am intrigued about technologies that apply advanced analytics to solve problems. I haven't had a chance to review System S yet, but from the reviews I've read, it seems to be a platform for deriving insight from massive volumes of data in real time. That's great, isn't it? Well, it is quite an achievement, so far as I can tell, but the breathless enthusiasm of the press/bloggers/analysts has me a little put off. Here's why.First of all, you can't solve big problems until you know that what are, source the data to analyze them and, most importantly, have the mechanisms in place to react to findings as quickly as you can analyze them. Potential applications mentioned include merging weather and financial data, for example, or other big problems like weather forecasting or optimization of worldwide distribution. A review in the New York Times suggested:

"...that a hospital could tap the System S technology to monitor not only individual patients but also entire patient databases, as well as medication and diagnostics systems. If all goes according to plan, the computing systems could alert nurses and doctors to emerging problems."

This is where I have a problem. If a government agency or a university or a massive data-driven enterprise have the time and desire to tackle problems like this, there is some merit to this. But an individual hospital? The phrase "if all goes according to plan" is telling. Let's face it, how many organizations have both the skill and organizational alignment to implement something so complex and controversial? In this particular case, medical data is a total mess and I, for one, would never accept the decision of a computer for medication, knowing that the records are often incomplete, conflicting and usually buried in proprietary systems. Even though the software can likely deal with outliers and errors and draw conclusions based on a large set of data, what if you're treating an outlier? There is zero tolerance for those kinds of mistakes in a hospital.

I don't like to use sports analogies, but I think one applies here. When you watch professional sports, you engage at one level, an extreme one. But when you play sports, what you try to do is hit the golf ball straight, not serve into the net or make a free throw about 30% of the time. The spectacle of professional sports drives our adrenaline to go do these things, but we never can approach the level of performance of the real pros. And that is the problem with the reporting of advances like System S. The vendor projects the image of Tiger Woods to a bunch of duffers, metaphorically speaking.

I applaud IBM for developing this capability, but I have some reservations about trying to sell it to the enterprise. James Taylor and I were clear in our book that automated decisions should be reserved for high-volume, "little" decisions that only matter to an organization in the aggregate.IBM's announcements about "System S" along with its "Smarter Planet" campaign have really caught my attention... It's quite an achievement, so far as I can tell, but the breathless enthusiasm of the press/bloggers/analysts has me a little put off. Here's why...

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