I’ll take ‘Making analytics sexy’ for $1,000, Alex

Watson on JeopardyORLANDO – The content here at IBM’s PartnerWorld Leadership Conference this week is focused on the cloud, business analytics and other major transformative opportunities in the market for Big Blue and its partners. But the buzz is all about a pre-recorded game show that is currently featuring a computer (Spoiler Alert!) kicking ass and taking names when it comes to trivia.

For those who’ve somehow missed it, IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence engine is being featured on Jeopardy! Monday through Wednesday, taking on two of the game show’s most successful players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. And, through two days on the show, doing a pretty good job of it, too – Watson ended up the first game of the matchup with more than $35,000, compared to Rutter’s $10,400 and Jennings’ $4,800.

So what does all this have to do with the company’s partner community? Surprisingly, actually quite a bit.

Consider this not-so-subtle hint provided by CEO Sam Palmisano in his kickoff keynote for the event Tuesday afternoon. Palmisano told partners that analytics represented the biggest opportunity for Big Blue and its partners going forward. And the Watson artificial intelligence technology was developed for just that opportunity – the ability to process massive data sets and quickly learn from the information in that data. But as Palmisano told partners, “forty years of research wasn’t about doing well on game shows.”

But in letting Watson loose on the popular game show, IBM has managed to make analytics sexy to the mainstream audience, at least for a while. It’s made a topic that tends to be more than a little esoteric into something that’s the captured the imagination of the mainstream.

Watson’s performance on the show is capturing headlines around the world and specifically at home in Canada, where the company’s manufacturing facility in Bromont, Que. is being besieged by reporters from mainstream publications wanting an inside look at the plant, which produces some of the components that power Watson. Its software can also trace its roots back to the company’s Ottawa-based Cognos division.

If IBM and its partners can successfully make the connection between a machine beating down trivia champions on TV, and the power that same data analysis engine can offer business customers, it will go a long way to opening doors and getting a chance to tell its story. And of course, that’s the root of Big Blue’s interest in letting Watson strut its stuff in this very public forum.

Big Blue’s being very tight-lipped about how Watson performs in the finale of the show – sales chief Gini Rometty said she let her husband lose a bet rather than tip her hand on the computer’s first-round draw on Monday’s edition of the show. But judging by the interest in Watson’s performance on the show here at PartnerWorld, there are going to be a few thousand partners tuning in to Wednesday’s finale and rooting for machine to continue to lay a beatdown on man.

It’s the best advertising IBM and its partners could hope for when it comes to the potential for analytical engines.