Empower 2021: An Interview with “Tech Humanist” Author Kate O’Neill

6 min read
  • Information Technology

Kate O’Neill is an author, keynote speaker, Fortune 500 advisor, and experience strategy expert focused on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future by teaching business how to make technology that’s better for humans. An integrated thinker and theorist, Kate makes it her work as Founder and Chief Tech Humanist of KO Insights to explore human-centric digital transformation, the future of work and human jobs, and human meaning in an increasingly automated world.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Kate ahead of her Empower keynote, “Making the Tech-Driven Future More Human”, to learn more about creating meaningful human experiences in technology to drive digital transformation.

1. For those who may not be as familiar with the term, what is Tech Humanism?

Tech Humanism is about centering the human in the relationship between technology and humanity, as well as looking at that relationship through the lens of business, which I argue is the main vehicle for putting technology in humanity’s path. So it’s focused on making tech-driven experiences more aligned between business objectives and human outcomes, which means optimizing for what makes those experiences meaningful to humans, and then using technology, where and when it makes sense, to amplify, dimensionalize, and deepen that alignment. Coincidentally, that alignment process also tends to make the relationship more profitable for business.

2. In your book, you speak about using purpose as a strategy. What does that look like on an individual level and an organizational level?

Using purpose as a key input to strategy means assessing, on a one-time and perhaps a periodic basis, what the driving principle of the individual or the organization is: what the company, for example, exists to do and is trying to do at scale.

At the individual level, this exercise can help us recognize what drives us, what makes us feel accomplished, what connects us with the people around us, and how to be mindful of those values and priorities as we engage with technology such as social media so that the tech we use can actually enhance our lives.

In the organization, this gives greater clarity to everything that flows from that articulation: values, priorities, brand considerations, experience design, and so on, all the way out to data modeling and tech deployment.

3. How do you define a meaningful human experience in a tech-driven culture? How can we measure it?

When we think about meaning, whether we think about it in a more semantic, language-centric way or a more cosmic, existential way, what we are always examining is what matters. So the idea of meaning in the context of experiences is a clue to help us design with a focus on what matters: what matters to the person who is the user or customer, and what matters in the alignment of the relationship between the company and the person outside the company.

In terms of measuring meaning, that of course is a challenge. But you can think about concepts that might be adjacent to meaning or might be affected by meaningful experiences, such as customer loyalty, for example.

For leading indicators, we might look at metrics related to usability — those often foretell meaningful experiences. But for the most part, we want to look for integrated views of the system, not just one-off metrics that can easily be over-fitted, might be misleading, or could be self-fulfilling or self-canceling — for example if an e-commerce company optimizes their entire business only around purchases, they may overlook repeat purchase or renewal behavior, and that could be a much more meaningful indication of whether the business is meeting customer needs and expectations with the experiences people are having.

4. What are some of the biggest challenges organizations face when aligning their purpose, brand and culture with their digital transformation strategies? How can they overcome those challenges?

One of the challenges is that this human-centric approach is not always reflected in the dominant business vocabulary. Many business leaders are used to steering their companies by looking at growth and/or profit and by thinking about scale. And certainly these are useful, relevant concepts in building and running a business, but they are by design reflective of only one dimension: finances. Business is multi-faceted: yes, you need healthy finances to run a company, but you can’t optimize only for finances or you will inevitably make decisions that may be short-sighted, unfocused, and lead to a lack of team direction and coherence.

A related challenge is that it seems natural to many business leaders to embark on digital transformation by thinking about the technology that will be needed. But that’s exactly the wrong place to start. We always have to start by thinking about the alignment between what makes the business successful and what makes the people around the business — employees, customers, and other stakeholders — successful. No one needs an AI strategy; they need a strategy for, say, processing large volumes of customer support issues quickly and determining which ones are straightforward and should be processed as quickly and efficiently as possible vs. which need nuanced intervention from skilled human specialists who are well trained and well paid. That latter problem will probably be a great candidate for solving with an intelligent automated solution, but it doesn’t start by thinking about AI as the hammer where everything looks like a nail.

5. How can we use human-centered technology practices to increase customer loyalty and retention in a distracted world?

Encourage asking questions. Encourage humanizing language: instead of always saying “users” or “customers,” say “people” when you mean “people.” Get clear on what human problems you’re trying to solve at scale, and encourage teams to translate their own work into how it helps the company solve those problems.

6. COVID-19 posed significant challenges and disruptions to nearly every industry.

What steps would you recommend organizations take to reimagine business operations to become future-ready in a time when disruptions are becoming more and more common?

Remain optimistic but with an eye on the risks you face so you don’t let them sneak up on you.
Think about the work that needs to be done as separate from the routines and places through which and in which that work has historically been done, and you may see opportunities to decouple legacy expectations of the workplace or of job functions.

Involve team members to help reimagine their workflow: some of them are very eager to get back to working in team environments in offices because they thrive in those settings, and others are desperately hoping to be able to stay home after COVID-19 because they thrive in that setting. Whatever the old way was, it most likely doesn’t need to be what you return to. You have the opportunity to reinvent teamwork and culture across remote and distributed teams and projects, and the future-ready value that will come from that could well be immeasurably huge.

7. Our world is becoming increasingly automated with the implementation of AI in business and our everyday lives. At Laserfiche, we’re seeing a growing number of use cases for AI and machine learning in our products, in our operations, and among our customers.

What should we keep in mind as we move toward a future of work that is increasingly driven by AI?

AI and some of the other emerging technologies will have capacity and scale like never before. This means we have an ever-increasing obligation to think responsibly about the world we are building through their use. I genuinely believe that we can use emerging technology within business and outside of business in cities, NGOs, and beyond to solve human problems at scale. I see real potential to make the best futures for the most people.

8. As we move into 2021, how do you see the role of tech humanism changing in wider societal conversation?

I have found that every 3-5 years or so my work takes a slight turn toward a new focal point. It’s not a pivot — it’s usually more like fine-tuning. This is usually shaped by my own research and content development but is also influenced by whatever is going on in the world around us. Last year, obviously, COVID-19 took centerstage, but it was also a year of tremendous social and racial awakening. The Tech Humanist movement was no exception, and a lot of the discussions I hosted and participated in, both for clients and on my own live show, were about the broad impacts of tech on marginalized communities, in terms of surveillance systems, disparities in employment and leadership, access to startup capital, and many more issues. I expect this direction of exploration and priority to keep increasing, and I think it’s especially important for those of us with relatively more privilege to ensure that the conversation does continue and that it leads to actionable change.

Similarly, it looks like we’re on the cusp of breakthroughs with understanding how tech impacts humanity in terms of climate change and climate justice. I was honored to be asked to lead a panel for the United Nations COP25 Climate Change Summit in Madrid in December 2019 with tech leaders from around the world discussing how AI and other emerging technology can be sharnessed to fight climate change. That conversation is accelerating, and the opportunities there are plentiful.

So all in all, my current research and writing work is focused on building from where Tech Humanist led me with the idea of looking toward these and other challenges of the future using all of the tools at our disposal, and with optimism and a spirit willing to do the work to make it better. I look forward to taking some of these new ideas out onto stages — real stages, with any luck! — and refining them as I launch this next book.

Empower 2021 attendees: win a free copy of Kate’s book, “Tech Humanist”

To learn more about these ideas, check out Kate O’Neill’s book “Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans”. Attendees of her keynote have a chance to win a signed copy of her book.

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