Why Do We Have Noses That Run and Feet That Smell?

This is a question posed by IBM in an article that explains some of the challenges of creating Watson, the artificial intelligence-enabled super computer. As you may know, Watson beat the all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, a major leap forward for natural-language computers.

A big breakthrough in designing Watson was giving it the ability to understand the English language, which is full of ambiguity, innuendos and idiosyncrasies. As the article asked, “How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? Why do we fill in a form by filling it out?”

It’s not only computers that have trouble understanding human communications, but fellow people too. It’s a common problem in the workplace. This can be caused by differences in language or culture, or simply not being clear about the intended message. Here are some conditions that can cause Watson-like misunderstandings:

• An unclear request that’s ambiguous.
• Not answering questions on a timely basis.
• Teams made up of members who are afraid of negative feedback or ridicule.
• Physical boundaries.

One way to deal with these is to use communications that are fact based, clear and concise. For example, when soliciting feedback, surveys can ask multiple choice questions versus open-ended so the results can be tabulated clearly. Yes, you give up some of the ancillary answers, but you get clearer understanding.

Another technique is to keep communications as visual as possible. This means using photos, videos, illustrations, listicles, charts and graphs instead of text-laden memos. Text is what caused most of the problems for Watson. Just as “badly finished garments are unseemly,” so are poorly written memos.

My final suggestion is to use an editor whenever possible. This doesn’t have to be a formally trained person, but someone with decent communication skills who can give your stuff a second look before posting.

Frank Kenna III
February 24, 2017

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