Key questions for winning by staying human in a digital age
I was very fortunate to meet Mark Brown via our blog and social media. I was even more fortunate when Mark was kind enough to share an advance copy of his new book: The Empathic Enterprise. I have literally been dragging this book across Europe on my travels and “dog earing” (marking) more pages on every flight. Brown’s book raises the ultimate business paradox for this technology age – Is our love affair and reliance on technology gone too far, and now putting us at jeopardy? In the age of droids, drones and robot servers, Mark Brown raises some intriguing strategic questions: what is right the balance of technology and the need for empathetic relationships in business, and our personal lives?
Why this is important: The old adage is still valid – too much of anything can kill you. The opportunities for more digital technology are literally exploding geometrically. The key to winning is asking the right questions to find a balance.
Mind the Gap – It is much harder to “see” technology invasion today
Mark Brown’s book is organized around a problem-solution format. Before diving into all of the issues, Brown does a masterful historical review of the evolution of technology, and the impact on our daily lives. For the millennials today, there is little context for the evolution of technology. They literally grew up in an age without record players or even CDs. For many today, but especially millennials, the smartphone is the portal for everything … digital music, movies, news and social media as a way of “connecting” without personally interacting with people.
Previous to the ICT (Internet Communication Technology) explosion, advances in technology were very visual and tangible. Brown highlights the example of a farmer plowing a field with horses watching a horseless carriage drive by. The impact of mechanical advances of the industrial age were very visible and very tangible in daily life. Today, we are often all too ready to embrace “digital technology” without realizing the far reaching impacts on business, social and our own lives. The Empathic Enterprise is focused on identifying, and being mindful of the rapidly widening gaps emerging from the blind embrace of technology and the human need for trust, rapport and empathy.
The three core concepts – for business and our daily life
While I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured the book’s historical context of technology evolution, I kept thinking “where is this leading”? Brown raises some major alarms and concerns about a blind, wholesale adoption of technology in business. Just because a robot can serve customers faster, better and cheaper than a human, is it a good investment? What is the answer to the runaway embrace of technology to run business, our smart homes and our lives?
Mark Brown does a masterful job of “walking around the issues from all sides”. Rather than a prescription, The Empathic Enterprise is organized around three themes:
- Digital technology is a double-edged sword that facilitates enterprise transactions and communications. Out of balance with human connectivity, it can erode the trust, engagement, and rapport critical for success.
- Every enterprise, large and small, needs to address the gap created by the increasingly fervent embrace of IT and the external and internal need for human contact.
- Organizations should leverage technology with a strategic commitment to “stay human” to varying degrees in a digital age.
Finding the Balance – Machinists vs Humanists
The “Machinist” point of view – Technophiles and IT departments make the case that the rapid adoption and deployment of technology brings many benefits to the enterprise, especially the bottom line. There are numerous quantitative ICT benefits including: reducing errors, reducing costs – including labor costs, more efficient supply chains, connecting virtual teams and remote workers, speed and efficiency for customer orders, and the list goes on.
The “Humanist” point of view – The humanists argue that being “connected” does not guarantee a relationship. Automating orders and tracking does not necessarily translate into a “trust relationship”. In fact, automated call centers and web portals have literally made us a “number”, often caught in a loop of pressing buttons that never provide the answer, or the engagement we are looking for.
Mark Brown offers some brilliant quotes on why the two must be blended going forward:
“Balance the machinist view of the world with the humanist. Err toward humanism. Embrace the blend.”
“Brands that are the digital humanists will get further with customers than those who are digital machinists”
Toward the Empathic Enterprise – “The Digital Humanist Manifesto”
In the second half of the book, Brown focuses on developing “A Framework for Becoming an Empathic Enterprise”. Do not expect a blueprint. In leadership development fashion, Brown asks a series of questions designed to help managers develop the blend of digital humanism:
- How do managers need to start thinking about this challenge?
- Where do you start?
- What questions do you need to ask your people? … yourself?
- How will you know if works?
- How will measure the impact?
My personal view is that the strength of The Empathic Enterprise is that Brown does NOT provide paten answers or formulas. Rather, the value of the book is focused on the journey, and how to engage both internal and external stakeholders.
The salient question: How much empathy does your business need?
The really salient questions for retailers is whether this all a theoretical, esoteric exercise? At the end of the day, we are now living in an omnichannel world. The vote that counts is that of the empowered consumer! But, the answer regarding the importance of the empathic retailer might very well depend upon the situational context, sense of urgency, and importance of human touch.
Brown offers great examples in his “Sense of Urgency Scale” examples. The balance between the machinist and humanist needs depend upon the consumer situation, context and desire for “human assistance”. For example, customers today are quite proficient and happy with an ICT Solution for withdrawing cash or reviewing bank account balances online. But, when it comes to arranging a bank loan for a major purchase, especially a home, customer’s desire for human touch ratchets up considerably. While I’m quite happy to arrange my prescriptions on my pharmacy phone app, I will only go to my trusted personal physician’s office for a medical diagnosis.
How you can personally win … by staying human in a digital age
The title The Empathic Enterprise implies that this is a book for business. And indeed, I would highly recommend it to all types of business leaders. It is especially salient for today’s retailers who are facing a host of decisions regarding rapid integration of technology into both online websites and stores. Do retailers really want to have customers ordering from iPads in stores? Is something lost when customers use automated checkout and never speak to a store associate?
For me, Mark Brown’s book is particularly important for business professionals … and all parents! Technology is invading our personal lives … how much is too much?
It is currently estimated that we touch the screen of our smartphones over 2,000 times per day. Millennials exceed that number … they literally sleep with their phones. They would rather text someone in the same house than to get up to go talk to them. I don’t know about your dinner table, but anyone over the age of 5 typically initially comes with their mobile device. Do you let them keep phones at dinner? And the bigger question is, what is lost in family life as children spend even more time on digital devices?
Mark Brown’s book could just as easily be titled: The Empathic Lifestyle.
With all the coming waves of smart homes, AI, and VR each of us face huge choices in how much is too much. In fact, I would argue that we need a personal “digital lifestyle manifesto” of how to balance embracing technology while retaining our humanness. In fact, I would recommend that all parents read Brown’s book from the perspective asking the salient questions of creating a winning balance for their lives and that of their families.