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August 28, 2013
Raising human ability is the expectation for everything digital
By: Mark McDonald

Perhaps the most profound potential of digital technology is its ability to change the focus of business from process to people. One definition of human ability is the range of a person’s acquired or natural capacities and talents. This builds on the historical role of technology in raising human performance. Digital technologies, such as mobility, analytics, big data and social are essentially human centered technologies. By that I mean that they can raise the individual and collective ability of human beings.

Technology has augmented human ability from writing to eyeglasses to the internal combustible engine and the world-wide-web. In each case, technology helps us to do something better: remember, see and communicate. Rather than automating or amplifying what we do today, what if digital technologies give people new abilities individually and collectively to create new sources of value, new outcomes and new results?

Raising human ability is one of the twelve truths I believe will become self evident in the digital decade. This belief goes beyond simple statements of rising consumer expectations and demands. It seeks to recognize a broadening and deepening of the role of people as individual human beings and groups of human beings in a digital world.

People are objects in an industrial business system. Human resources are inputs in the production process. Customers or consumers are the objects of the business model. People are categorized, segmented, targeted, classified etc., to fit into the standards and structures of products, markets, services and operations. IT systems manage the work of genericized users. Such classifications were necessary to standardize human talent, energy, time and knowledge and integrate it into production methods with substitutable resources in an industrial process model.

People are on the comeback in a digital world

Look at your smart phone, your online profile, your browsing history, your connections with others, your social media page and one thing becomes clear. They are yours. Concerns regarding personal privacy and security are another example of the evolving emphasis on the individual. They are important because we not only know more about each other, but that knowledge is about us as individuals, it’s personal and we now know it matters.

Human ability matters. People demonstrate and place demands on human ability every time you use an app, activate a personal relationship, or convey information to reach a goal or accomplish a task. Human ability comes to the forefront the more people use digital technologies to craft their own solutions in their own situations. Human ability is what makes products viral and sticky because it replaces product features and functions with personal outcomes and results.

Market solutions are no longer the only solutions. We are all ‘makers’ in the sense that digital technology extends our human ability to do it for ourselves. This is inherent in open, generative and human centered technologies and distinct from transaction processing technology.

Increasingly, people are using digital technology as a means of choosing solutions that raise ability without requiring conformity. This is one of the sources of ‘big bang disruption’ a term coined by Paul Nunnes and Larry Downs to describe new entrants that outperform established players. Raising human ability and recognizing individual diversity is one of ways a newcomer outperforms an incumbent. Focusing on specific tasks is one approach to this type of disruption, for example location based services apps that call a taxi. Another approach is to provide the platform for personal expression and connections and collaboration.

The return of the person threatens traditional business models

What is a business model to do when it can no longer classify individuals into market segments? Many are matching digital human ability with digital marketing. Making products and services more usable or being easy to do business with or creating a customer experience are some responses. Others include increasing the configurability and personalization of products or services, exploding the number niche markets and affinity groups and markets of one. These responses cope with the individual by getting them back in the business model bottle. This will work, but there is a price to pay in complexity, fragmentation and constantly playing catch-up.

So what is an executive to do?

It is true that the same technologies that raise human ability can also raise business abilities. Digital technologies enhance market insights, accelerate organizational agility and extend the range and reach of products and services. Understanding how digital technology applies to further digitize and automate current business models is important, but it is not the only focus for the future.

Executives looking to create value and realize growth need to expand their view of business. For a start, change the language used in the business. There are no users, customers, or associates. Only people. People who look to improve their lives by raising their ability. People who will often seek to do so on their own and in their own context.

Markets are becoming places of diversity rather than conformity, peopled by individuals with diverse needs, ambitions, tasks, etc. How you support those needs, how you support people becomes an important part of the company’s value proposition. That will become self evident in the market as digital technology moves deeper into products, processes and services.

Human ability should be a source of value for digital technology. Digital technologies that do not raise human ability are worth less than those that do. This requires expanding our view of people in our business models. We have been customers, consumers and users. It is time for us to be human beings and it is time for us to use digital technology to raise our capacity and talents.

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