Intuition, intelligence and information technology

Having the ability to listen when the still small voice in your head is telling you that you are going in the wrong direction, is probably what is most needed in ivory towers


Corporate mandates to produce outcomes such as impossible quarterly growth rates can cause otherwise rational minds to go in the wrong direction. Photo: iStockphoto
Corporate mandates to produce outcomes such as impossible quarterly growth rates can cause otherwise rational minds to go in the wrong direction. Photo: iStockphoto

I happened to stumble upon an interesting article while trawling the Internet this past week.

Written by Bruce Kasanoff, who calls himself a “ghostwriter for thought leaders,” it was published in an online edition of Forbes, and dealt with the subject of intuition, or gut feeling, and whether intuition could be classified as a form of intelligence.

The article made me instantly think of my father, who was a famed intuitive diagnostician when he was alive.

Cases that had flummoxed other doctors, and had been through batteries of expensive but inconclusive tests, were brought to him; he somehow had the ability to intuit the diagnosis—with remarkable accuracy.

I remember quizzing my father about this ability when I was a teenager. He seized the opportunity my query had presented to stress on meditation, since at the time he was trying to cajole me into continuing my meditation practice, which I had been taught as a child, but which as a cocky teenager, I had almost given up.

He dismissed any notion of his intuitive diagnostic capability being a gift, and instead told me that long years of practising both medicine and meditation had given him this ability.

As most teenagers would, I shrugged off the advice and only practised meditation half-heartedly, until I rediscovered the practice in my early thirties.

Evidently, there has been much research done on differing diagnostic abilities among doctors.

In a book called How Doctors Think written by Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School, the author touches on several topics, including a theory called the ‘availability heuristic’, which won one of its descriptors a Nobel prize.

Heuristics, or rules of thumb, are also used in the programming of artificially intelligent computers; the theory states that ‘availability’ is defined as the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant examples come to mind.

In a clinical situation, a diagnosis might be made because the physician often sees similar cases.

It is this pattern-recognition heuristic with which International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) and others are trying to make headway into medical science—by buying reams of past medical data upon which to build deductive computing engines.

Many of my father’s contemporaries—and patients—who are still alive today, thanks to the pinpoint accuracy of his diagnostic capabilities, often remind me how astounding this intuitive ability of his was.

This weekend, I met one of his old patients, who also happened to teach my daughter when she was in school. This kind lady told me that she had observed that my daughter, like my father, also has this ability and intuitively knew the right answer to knotty problems that were posed to her while she was still in school.

This of course gladdened me, though evidently this gift has skipped a generation, since muggins here is possessed of the intuition of an insect.

Nonetheless, this exchange with my daughter’s teacher led me to revisit the Forbes article.

I shall not rehash it here, and will allow you to discover it if you so choose, but shall repeat a salient point from the article, since apart from the obvious comparison to artificial intelligence, it also gives us an important pointer into how information technology (IT) services firms may behave over the next several quarters, as the pincer grip of both political as well as technological upheaval closes in on their current business models.

The article cites the example that most websites are today organized in an intuitive way, which means they are easy for most people to understand and navigate.

This approach evolved after many years of chaos online, as a common wisdom emerged over what information was superfluous and what was essential.

My takeaway from this is that the world of the rarified ivory towers of CEOs and their strategists at IT services firms will continue to muddle along with their decisions until a pattern appears, post facto, which shows them what they should have been doing in the first place. Ouch!

For those of us who are external spectators to the machinations of the likes of Accenture Plc., IBM, Infosys Ltd and so on, this contains a powerful lesson.

Our only way of making sense of this is to look at what these firms have done in the past when faced with massive upheaval, as they are today.

Corporate mandates created by powerful CEOs or their strategy organizations can go wrong. Firms like Patni Computer Systems Ltd and Covansys India Pvt. Ltd frittered away their advantage while Infosys, Wipro Ltd and Tata Consultancy Services Ltd beefed up during the Y2K boom, which allowed them to harvest the colossal offshore opportunity that presented itself soon thereafter.

When I first ventured out from consulting into outsourcing advisory work, the big six of the outsourcing world were widely considered to be Accenture, Affiliated Computer Systems Inc., Computer Sciences Corp., Electronic Data Systems Corp., HP Inc., and IBM.

Only two of those six stand in somewhat similar form as they did about a decade ago; the rest have been eviscerated or swallowed up by others. Today’s leading IT services by market capitalization feature more Indian names than non-Indian ones.

As I have observed—and suffered—first-hand, corporate mandates to produce outcomes such as impossible quarterly growth rates can cause otherwise rational minds to go in the wrong direction.

Maybe my father was right after all; being mindful and completely present, thus having the ability to listen when the still small voice in your head is telling you that you are going in the wrong direction, is probably what is most needed in these ivory towers.

So, roll out the mats, sit down, and focus. Mindfulness in chaotic times pays dividends.

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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