Digital in a Human World

With every transaction that gets automated and every physical store that closes, every bit of dark UX that manipulates users, or algorithms that maintain our undivided attention, one could be forgiven for questioning the humanity of digital. But the shift to becoming a digital business isn’t binary. More than ever in the new reality, empathy has power. Context and understanding matter. People care. The winners over the next five years will successfully combine the best digital technologies with the magic of the human touch. The pandemic fundamentally altered the fabric of societies, communities, families and daily life as we know it. The experience has forced a once-in-a-generation shift in people’s values, attitudes and contexts as consumers and employees. Values have been thrown up in the air. Geographical horizons have narrowed. Contact with friends and family has been restricted. Homes have become the workplace. People’s financial prospects have become less secure. This upheaval is driving changes in important societal trends such as migration, urbanisation, consumer habits, brand loyalties and people’s expectations of their working lives. While amplified in our current circumstances, some of these trends have the potential to lead to permanent, structural changes to the way we live our lives. For organisations, this changed context will demand empathy, agility and purpose.

During times of crisis and change, people experience a craving for empathy.

Mind the Empathy Gap

During periods of crisis people experience a craving for empathy. In the case of the pandemic, these effects have been intensified by prolonged periods of isolation and, for many, vulnerability. At the same time, lockdowns have shifted their centre of gravity from the high street to the home, the local community and online – when it comes to work, socialising, leisure and shopping. And of course, people have increasingly turned to digital for an answer. The use of digital tools and solutions during lockdown has “gone through the roof”, in the words of the FT.3 For many businesses, the combination of these factors has resulted in an empathy gap between how they serve their customers, and what customers need in this new context. This results in propositions, experiences and operations that are less suited to building engaging and valuable customer relationships in the new reality. To adapt and compete in the future, firms will need to rediscover their customers, gaining a fresh understanding of people’s changed contexts, attitudes and behaviours. Only then will businesses be able to reimagine human experiences, and provide relevant and trusted touchpoints from which to build meaningful relationships beyond face-to-face interactions. Recent history has seen frontline staff in stores, call centres and out in the field become disempowered by technology. In the name of efficiency and optimisation, some organisations have limited employees to transactional activity, invoking parallels with the world of Little Britain, where the “computer says no”. But consider a world five years from now, where the value of human engagement is amplified by digital technology. Where digital interactions are designed for the inherent vulnerabilities and irrationalities of human life rather than only for business logic. And where the two work in tandem, turning discrete interactions into engaging customer relationships. In this world, employees are provided with actionable and relevant insights as the basis for meaningful engagement and advice. Manual transactional effort is removed. In this world, digital experiences are personalised to the context and relevant assistance is available through intelligent bots and next generation contact centres. In this world, digital enables greater human connection with brands and each other. How much better could life be? If every business raises the bar, what will success look like in five years from now?

What should you be thinking about now?

  • How have your customers’ contexts, attitudes and behaviours changed, and how big is your empathy gap?
  • What is the optimal combination of ‘Digital + Human’ for your customers and your business?
  • How will you create experiences your customers love, and keep them coming back for more?

Leading for Agility

The need for empathy goes beyond customers. Indeed, empathy has shone brightly from the governments and businesses credited with more effectively managing the pandemic. Uncertainty and upheaval have amplified the need for a new kind of leadership. For example, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern received global recognition for her compassionate leadership of a ‘team of 5 million’ citizens through the pandemic. An increasingly digitally savvy workforce has different expectations of their leaders. They demand respect for their boundaries, concern for their wellbeing, and an employer that reflects their values. They want to be productive in a work-from-anywhere environment. They insist on the removal of barriers to innovation, progress and value creation. And they possess a powerful desire for meaning in what they do. Traditional management practices based on Taylorism are of little value in the face of continuous, unpredictable change and rapid decision-making. And so, new approaches to leadership, and the organisational culture they enable are, arguably, the most critical enablers for becoming a digital business – not only to attract and enable top talent but to develop the organisational agility needed to compete in a world of constant change. With their engineering culture, Spotify has built a reputation for setting the gold standard in agility. An interview with founder and CEO Daniel Ek provides an insight into the mind of a leader who “does things very differently from other business leaders”. Instead of having formal one-to-ones with his senior team, Ek keeps himself available to them as and when they need him. Why? “Because I want my leadership team to feel empowered, and not need to run things past me to review and approve…I'm here for them, and if they’re running into an issue, I am here to help…I think that's an important part of a leader’s role.4 This servant leadership approach empowers people closest to the work to make decisions, to innovate and to adapt to a changing landscape. It enables teams to flourish in pursuit of outcomes. Through all the potential futures, we can imagine over the next five years. Leaders should feel confident that the pace and unpredictability of change will continue. In this future, digital businesses will continue to succeed, not only due to their platforms and technology, but because they can lead – and serve – a digital workforce to innovate and respond at pace.

Uncertainty and upheaval have amplified the need for a new kind of leadership.

What should you be thinking about now?

  • Does your leadership style create an environment where talent can thrive?
  • Does your organisation have a culture that enables it to respond at pace in a volatile and uncertain world?
“Brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive.” Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever

The Purpose Tipping Point

The seismic shifts of recent events mean customer, employee, and increasingly investor expectations are precipitating companies to rethink how they do business. The World Economic Forum is calling for a ‘Great Reset’, highlighting “a global… concern for lives, livelihoods and the planet.5 Unilever CEO Alan Jope has said that the pandemic strengthened his deeply held belief that “brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last, and people with purpose thrive.”6 We believe that five years from now, successful businesses will be driven by a purpose that permeates their brand promise, strategy, customer experience and corporate culture. But some digital businesses have been found wanting on this count – be it the role they have played in enabling the spread of misinformation, polarising society and accelerating inequalities, or through abusing monopolistic positions or fiduciary responsibilities. No longer conscious only of their customers and employees, digital businesses are recognising the need to satisfy a broader stakeholder community. For some, the data, connectivity and agility they have developed give them the opportunity – perhaps even the responsibility – to better understand and serve the needs of their suppliers, communities and society. In what may be sign of things to come from Big Tech, Apple kicked off 2021 by announcing that it was tying executive bonuses to how its leaders abide by the firm’s social and environmental values.7 And PayPal CEO Dan Schulman has highlighted the need to support the Global Reset by considering progress, people, and the planet. “This idea that profit and purpose are at odds with each other inside a business is ridiculous,” he told Davos 2021. “I would argue that the two go hand in hand.”8 So have we reached a tipping point, where purpose has become as much of an imperative as profit? As we face challenges and embrace opportunities, will consumers, employees, regulators and investors back businesses that embrace digital but lack purpose?

What should you be thinking about now?

  • What is your purpose, and are you really making enough of a difference?
  • Will your business deliver on its promise for customers, employees and society?