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While the hype surrounding IBM’s Watson project far exceeds any current reality, the implications of the next-generation analytics platform on the channel could be as far reaching as they are profound.

IBM has already started a number of pilot projects in vertical sectors such as healthcare that will ultimately transform how those businesses are managed. For example, in a pilot program at WellPoint, Watson is helping medical professionals make more informed decisions around patient treatment options, and Citibank is evaluating new ways that Watson can be used to help improve the banking client experience.

IBM collectively refers to these pilot projects as examples of a new era of “cognitive computing” that will suggest courses of actions that should be taken based on the patterns that Watson discerns by analyzing massive amounts of data.

According to Manoj Saxena, IBM general manager for Watson solutions, IBM is hoping to see is a range of similar pilot projects across a range of industries where the analytics capabilities of the Watson platform can be applied to transform that way a particular service is delivered.

Saxena says that customers that decide to engage in these projects are really becoming “co-creators” with IBM because a lot of expertise is required to create the lexicons of information that need to be in place before Watson can be applied in a specific industry solution. Right now, Saxena says one of the bigger challenges IBM faces is just getting customers to imagine the art of the possible, which is why IBM is trying to get business users to really sit down and think through how Watson might be applied in their specific industry.

As part of that effort IBM partnered with the University of Rochester (UR) Simon School of Business to fund a 25-student competition focused on exploring news ways Watson technology for deep content analysis, evidence-based reasoning, natural language processing and learning capabilities. The three winning teams and their Watson applications focused on data for crisis management; improving the efficiency of the mining industry and using Watson to reduce wait times and improve the travel experience.

Saxena says that IBM is also looking to its partners to discover similar types of Watson-related projects. In fact, recent estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project a 24 percent increase in demand for professionals with management analysis skills over the next eight years. In addition,  the McKinsey Global Institute projects a need for approximately 190,000 more workers with analytics expertise and 1.5 million more data-savvy managers in the U.S. That suggests that businesses of all types are seeing increased in value in using analytics to drive business processes that are based more on fact than intuition.

Of course, Watson is not an inexpensive undertaking so potential customers need to be relatively well-heeled. But the solution provider that winds up driving a Watson project may wind up transforming not only how one organization operates, but an entire vertical industry. And with that level of potential opportunity it’s pretty hard to not at least consider the possibilities.