Illustration: Jennifer Vandersteen

THE COGNITIVE ERA: 
Engaging Individuals at Scale

The chief communications officer (CCO) of any organization has always had to understand the multifaceted, dynamic, and constantly transforming context in which his or her company or institution operates. This will never change. But digital disruption across industries and professions is transforming the practice of communications — including raising expectations among consumers, patients, employees, and citizens for thoughtful personalization in every interaction, whether with an enterprise, government, service, or any kind of system.

As CCOs, we have to be ahead of that. The modern CCO will target and learn from individuals at scale. Rather than rely on the old-fashioned mind-set of reaching mass audiences through influencers and intermediaries, we instead need to engage constituents as unique persons.

Why now? Because there are new tools powered by troves of data and analytics that unlock a much richer array of insights about the people with whom we want to engage. And because that is the increasing expectation of every one of our customers, too. This is not for some distant future. Our marketing colleagues use these tools today to create digital commerce sites. Political parties use them for elections. Health care companies use them for building and deploying systems that enable them to understand and treat patients as individuals rather than as clusters or cohorts. CCOs likewise must build and operate digital systems of engagement.

By adopting these new tools, CCOs are enabling a future in which the communications experience between a company and its consumers will be highly personalized, anticipatory, and thoughtful. In fact, the point of engagement isn’t going to feel like receiving “content,” or a message, or some other information. It’s going to feel like a service to the individual. It’s going to feel like help.


Technology has created a vast amount of data about what people are saying, believing, and doing. Every two days, humans now create as much data as they have generated from the beginning of recorded history to 2003. But 80 percent of data today is “unstructured”; computers can store it, move it, and display it, but they can’t understand its true meaning or significance. This is called “dark data” and it comes from tweets, photographs, natural language exchanges, videos, sounds, and input both from embedded sensors and from every sphere of activity and knowledge touching our enterprises. It includes purchases, transportation, weather, the movement of goods and services, the physical environment, and the global conversation.

As communicators, we want to know what is actually in the content of this unstructured data. What are people saying, and what do they mean? What is that photograph revealing? What is that video portraying? What do those patterns of movement and purchase and connection signify?

Imagine if we as communication professionals could know more about the individual we are trying to engage. We would know, for example, who they are, their job title, where they are, what they share through social media. Beyond that, we could analyze what they’ve posted on social media to build a view of that individual’s personality and tendencies — knowing from psycholinguistics that what we write and how we speak say a lot about us. Is he more extroverted or introverted? Does she like to get into details? Does she like to try new things? Now imagine having the ability to know millions of individuals in this in-depth way and to communicate and engage with them personally. That’s the opportunity ahead for CCOs.

At IBM, we’ve developed our own form of what we call “cognitive computing,” which the world knows as Watson. Watson is the first computer system that can take in, understand, reason about, and learn from the world’s unstructured data.

But even short of artificial intelligence, the digital era is offering powerful tools for CCOs to understand what people are saying, posting, hearing, and sharing. We have many new resources now to obtain that insight and use it to shape belief, confidence, action, and advocacy.

The challenge lies not in the technology, but in the new kinds of scaling it requires and the new sorts of expertise it demands. Since we’re going to have to deal not with populations but individuals by the many millions, we need to build automated digital systems to engage them. A person can’t track that kind of information 24 hours a day for millions of people. But a digital system can — and it can do so even more precisely if it possesses cognitive capabilities.


All of that unstructured data goes back to the core of what a communicator is supposed to do: to understand the environment and context in which the business operates and to influence belief, action, confidence, and advocacy among all relevant stakeholders. People shape, express, and share their opinions and perceptions differently today. They make decisions differently, too. We have to stay ahead — first by building digital systems of engagement and then by differentiating our organizations by providing the kind of value and insight made possible by the new generation of cognitive capabilities.

This is about competitive advantage for a company. Yes, the communications profession will always rest on integrity, ethics, key influencers, counseling, and helping companies do the right thing. But we cannot stop there. As modern CCOs, we must take advantage of every new tool and technique. In our time, this is the phenomena of digital, of data, and the arrival of new forms of digital intelligence. We must jump on the opportunity for the sake of our companies’ competitive standing — and we must do so to unlock new kinds of value for business and society. This is too exciting a future not to seize.

Jon Iwata, senior vice president of Marketing and Communications at IBM, is the architect of IBM’s strategic brand platforms, including e-business, Smarter Planet and Watson. Formerly chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society, Jon was a key collaborator on the Page Society’s latest report: The New CCO, about the evolving role of today’s chief communications officers.

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