Why and How to Humanize Business


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With data as plentiful as oxygen, and storage as cheap as M&Ms, it’s tempting to be utterly seduced by all of the behavioral metrics we can passively mine. But data captured from unknowing, unengaged “consumers,” unaugmented by the reflection, feedback, and co-creative capabilities of fellow humans, is not only limiting, but potentially misleading.

While Big Data can tell you what, it can’t tell you why. That’s why some of the world’s most data-rich companies like Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook actively enlist consumers as active partners in helping them generate, refine, and evaluate products.

Sometimes the most transformative epiphanies lie in human-to-human encounters, in what can be felt, and shared, and not merely in what lends itself to measurement.

Why we need humans to complement data

Businesses have unprecedented data available to them about our lives – where we go, what we research, what we buy, who we connect with, what we “Like.” And there is undeniable promise in using a trove of information captured and mined and based on observable behavior rather than relying on the self-reporting of flawed, biased, and forgetful human respondents. Big data is seen as inherently more credible. And because we acquire it at such volume and velocity, we feel not just comfortable but compelled to use it.

Data offers the promise of neutrality, but it’s a false promise that serves only to obscure the biases we bring to it in the very questions we ask and the outcomes we hope for. Nate Silver has famously documented the role of confirmation bias in the market’s failure to anticipate the crash of 2008. Research by Dan Kahan has demonstrated our tendency to interpret data in whatever way will help us “avoid dissonance and estrangement from valued groups” – groups, in a corporate context, like our colleagues or boss. The “filter bubble” bias reinforced by social media algorithms (and yes, fake news) led to the massive failure of pre-electoral data in 2016.

Indeed, our biases are expressed in the very data we choose to collect, and as we rely increasingly on machine-learning, we are only propagating that tendency. As Microsoft Research’s Kate Crawford noted in a recent speech, “We should always be suspicious when machine learning systems are described as free from bias if it’s been trained on human-generated data. Our biases are built into that training data.”

Working in demanding, competitive environments, we love the comfort and validation that data can provide us. But what we need is challenge, not confirmation. Precisely because we are human beings and not computers, we need to ask ourselves, “Did the data really show us this, or does the result make us feel more successful and more comfortable?”

And while data can indicate what people do within the realm of what’s available and observable, it limits our sense of the possible. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil has noted, if college admission data models had been established in the early 1960s, women students would still be scarce because the system would largely have been trained on successful men. Moving beyond the past and inventing the future requires both ethics and imagination, and that’s still something only humans can provide.

What humanized businesses look like

Early in Jennifer Hsieh’s career as VP of Insight, Strategy & Innovation at Marriott International, she was assigned to a project intended to make the hotels more family-friendly. Driving this initiative was the insight that adults and children alike want to experience the hotel as a safe, secure home base when they are travelling. And what better way to meet that emotional need than by providing kids with milk and cookies after a day of exploring?

Alas, when Marriott – which was then a far more operationally oriented company than a customer-centric one – moved to implement this idea at scale, they encountered numerous legal and corporate imperatives. The cookies had to be individually wrapped with a list of ingredients to alert parents to any potential allergens. Staff had to be specially allocated to ensure that the milk was kept cold enough to be safely drunk. And kids would not be allowed to get their own milk and cookies; the food and beverage could only be dispensed in the company of a parent

What began as a warm, homey gesture – milk and cookies as a treat after a long day in a strange place – turned into a bureaucratic, antiseptic process, stripped of its essential humanity.

Ms. Hsieh had the wisdom to recognize that if the execution couldn’t be aligned with the insight, if it couldn’t meet the emotional need that gave rise to the idea in the first place, the initiative should be halted. It wasn’t enough for the numbers to support the value of this offering; if it couldn’t be delivered with authenticity and genuine focus on the child, it wasn’t worth doing. Decisions like these are what’s elevated Marriott to Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies, and made it a top performer in C Space’s CQ (Customer Quotient) ratings of brands that most intuitively “get” their customers. They are acts of empathy with their most essential stakeholders.

The most resonant insights, the most motivating ideas, are those that emerge from real human stories. A picture – whether it is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother or that of the drowned Syrian refugee toddler on the beach – moves people in ways that data can’t because they excite our empathy.

But there’s another way to humanize business, and that’s to not only excite our empathy, but to more broadly value and engage our employees’ uniquely human capacity for critical thinking. After all, what drives advances in science are human beings willing to prove their hypotheses wrong.

There’s a Peter Drucker-coined principle that has guided business for years: “If you can measure it, you can improve it.” And how do we measure? By accumulating data derived from browsers, beacons, mobile phones, and the general surveillance society. By all means, let’s shine the light on what can be seen, counted, weighed, and measured. But at the same time, let’s not be afraid to grope and bump our way in the dark. That’s where the adventures and the breakthroughs lie.

Julie Wittes Schlack
Julie Wittes Schlack, SVP of Innovation at C Space Corporation, is a writer, teacher, editor, and researcher. She has won a Hopwood Award for Fiction, and has been a Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction prize, the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction prize, and the Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, The Alembic, The Literary Review, The Ledge, and more.


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