We are in the midst of a digital revolution. From smart phones to smart homes to smart cities, the effects of big data analytics and associated technologies including automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) are reaching into every aspect of our lives.
For businesses, the potential benefits these technologies enable are nothing short of dazzling. Massive data reservoirs inform highly personalized customer experiences and the development of new applications, products and services. Machines and artificial intelligence facilitate “lights out” manufacturing, streamlined processes and increased efficiency.
But in a world in which machine-to-machine and human-to-machine interactions are becoming the norm, have we eliminated human-to-human interactions to the detriment of our customer and employee intimacy? To take it a step further, are we at risk of losing our corporate conscience?
Digital Transformation: The Human Factor
It’s easy to draw the conclusion that removing people from day-to-day service interactions and processes damages customer and employee intimacy. But the reality of how these technologies are affecting our businesses, customers and society at large is far more complex.
For example, according to Forrester, while customers prefer online self-service for simple research, support and service issues, they rely on talking with a company rep for more complex questions and issues. The one-on-one (human-to-human) building of relationships isn’t lost, but rather has shifted, allowing employees to focus their time and expertise on interactions crucial to customer satisfaction rather than routine tasks
Industrie 4.0 leaders such as Siemen’s (IW100034) Electronic Works facility in Germany successfully shifted production and other manufacturing tasks to machines, simultaneously expanding and refocusing the roles of its approximately 1,000 employees. The plant’s workforce headcount has remained consistent for the past 10 years, while productivity has gone up by a factor of six.
Bomb disposal robots routinely keep soldiers and law enforcement officials out of harm’s way.
The fact is, we’ve been moving towards data-driven business and automated workforces for some time now. Still, there is more anxiety on the parts of consumers and employees than ever before, as technology advances drive changes not only in how we do business, but the very nature of business itself.
Generally speaking, even little changes can create fear and anxiety, let alone change on the scale we’re talking about. So it’s up to business leadership to develop harmonious relationships between technology and people. The question is, how? That’s where corporate citizenship comes into play.
Digital Transformation and Corporate Citizenship Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Earlier I asked whether the drive towards digital transformation puts an organization’s corporate conscience at risk. The answer is “yes.” I don’t believe companies intentionally set out to abuse the power today’s technology gives them, but I’m certain we can all point to instances – even within our own companies – where it has happened to a degree.
If we expect to harness the latest technology advances to the benefit of our customers, business and society at large, there are two primary challenges business leaders need to address now.
First, as companies amass vast amounts of personal data used to develop products and services, they must own the responsibility for the ethical use and security of that information. Ethical and security guidelines for how data is collected, controlled and ultimately used are of paramount concern to customers, and rightfully so. In order to gain the trust of customers, companies must be transparent and prove they employ strong ethical guidelines and security standards.
Second, it is incumbent on organizations to act responsibly toward their employees and make it possible for them to succeed in the rapidly changing work environment. That means clearly defining the company vision and strategies, enabling shifting roles through specialized training, and redefining processes to empower people to innovate and implement new ways of doing business to successfully navigate this new and ever-changing landscape.
One final word of advice: remember, we are in charge of technology. It doesn’t own us. Step back, look around and envision ways technology can make life better for you, the people at your company and the world at large. And just like that, you’ll have taken a step towards ensuring humanity doesn’t become a footnote in the digital revolution.
Anthony’s day and night job is Chief Marketing Officer at Level 3. His team is responsible for product development, product management, corporate marketing and customer experience globally. To unwind, he does as much as he can outdoors with his family and plays drums.