IBM’s John Mason: Using Watson Analytics to Help SMBs Make Sense of Big Data

At last month’s Dreamforce conference held in San Francisco, it was said that 90% of the entire world’s collection of data has been generated over the past two years. And this has happened before wearable technology has hit the mainstream, and with device-to-device communication only being in its infancy. With the amount of information growing exponentially, it presents opportunities to those able to make sense of it to quickly turn those insights into engagement opportunities.

John Mason, General Manager of IBM’s Midmarket Division, joins us to discuss how IBM’s new Watson Analytics service can help small businesses begin to use the power of big data in building better relationships with today’s consumer. (This transcript has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the audio player at the end of this article.)

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Watson AnalyticsSmall Business Trends: Can you tell us a bit about your personal background?

John Mason: I’ve been with the company for about 18 months, running the mid-market business globally. Started my career in the late 80s, as PCs and the whole client server model was booming. Spent several years in consumer and business PCs, then moved into the networking space and ran the SMB business for a networking company. Then moved into mobile and worked for one of the big mobile phone companies. I built whole channels business there, as well as a mobile cloud service business I built up to about one million users within 12 months or so.

Small Business Trends: What is big data at the SMB level, and how should they be thinking about big data to drive engagement?

John Mason: I saw a quote recently that said big data is the new natural resource. But unlike other natural resources which are scarce, data isn’t one we risk running out of, but one we risk drowning in.

So I think this proliferation of devices, not just communicating with human beings, but communicating with each other through the Internet of Things, things like cars having on-board data, communicating with other systems – it’s truly amazing, the amount of data just today. We’re seeing about 2.5 billion gigabytes of data every single day.

Small Business Trends: Wow.

John Mason: So, it’s clearly just a mass of data that’s out there. And the question then becomes, how do you actually sort through that data to get something useful and actionable that a small business can really use to find new customers, close deals more effectively, identify where to focus their marketing efforts, where to hire the next sales person?

Part of the challenge we’re facing is how do we really make this simple for a smaller business to take advantage of some of the tools we’re now making available to really use the data to interact with customers, drive growth and create markets in new ways? That’s something we’ve been focused on developing for several months now, and just recently made what I think is one of the most exciting announcements of something called Watson Analytics. You can sign up at It’ll be coming out in a few weeks. There’s a level of usage which is free.

Small Business Trends: Can you talk a bit about some of the ways Watson Analytics helps SMBs?

John Mason: The first thing Watson Analytics will do is clean up the data you have, then perform analysis on that data based on whichever fields you select. From there, it will present you with choices you can make to improve the quality of data being analyzed. It’s found a certain number of errors; do you agree to let the tool clean up those errors? If you do, then it’ll go ahead and do it.

Then it presents you with a simple text entry box where you can enter natural language, in English at this point. You can enter a question. What are my best selling products, or which customers are most profitable for me? And it’ll sort through the mass of data you’ve given it access to and come back with a visualization of where your most profitable products are, or which customers generate most profit for you, or which sales regions are performing the best. You can also choose to save and share that data with other colleagues or whomever.

All that’s for free in the base model. Using additional data sources at some point will make a different pricing tier.

Small Business Trends: From a corporate culture perspective, what are the things a small business would really need to do to give itself the best opportunity to succeed by using a service like this?

John Mason: There needs to be an acceptance that there’s really value in deriving insights from data. One of the benefits of using a tool like this is, it doesn’t start with an opinion. It takes the data, looks objectively at it and presents it back to you in a way that hopefully gives you some sort of a-ha moments that, oh, I hadn’t realized that – let me think about what action that would lead me to.

Small Business Trends: What’s the biggest hurdle companies face in doing this and being successful with it?

John Mason: The biggest hurdle is actually just getting started. Deciding to try. The second is availability of simple tools that allow somebody to really get started using a data set of something they already have to hand in – for example, a spreadsheet.

Small Business Trends: Where could people go to learn more about Watson Analytics?

John Mason: You can also follow me on Twitter @JCMason.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.