The human touch will elevate organisations in the digital age
Despite the efficiency of technology, personalised effort will always matter, writes Abdullah Verachia
Twitter came to life recently when it was announced that history would become a compulsory subject in South African schools.
What use is history, tweeted many. Why not focus on STEM?
After all, aren’t science, technology, engineering and maths the skills to have?
Others, however, claimed the human-centric abilities fostered by "the arts" would have more relevance for the future.
In the debate about technology and the humanities, no one said it better than Apple cofounder and technology doyen Steve Jobs: "Technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing."
What Jobs knew is that the most successful companies in the technological era are those that understand the human element. They appreciate that technology is only an enabler; it is not a market disrupter.
They understand that the human touch is critical to building sustainable competitive organisations. Unfortunately, many people are getting so caught up in the hype of technology and the ensuing digital disruption that they fail to realise that we don’t build technology for other machines, we build technology and we digitise for human beings. We are in business for humans.
Yes, we can digitise artificial intelligence but social intelligence and emotional intelligence are human characteristics. It is those traits we should be embracing, as anything we can’t digitise will become much more valuable in the future.
FUTURE-FOCUSED ORGANISATIONS SHOULD BE BUILDING THEIR PRODUCTS AROUND … HUMAN CHARACTERISTICS.
Global futurist Gerd Leonhard argues that we can’t digitise humour, dreams, creativity, persuasion, self-consciousness, serendipity, inspiration, compassion, ethics, value sets, imagination or experience. Future-focused organisations should be building their products around these human characteristics and motivating their staff to recognise and foster such abilities — in conjunction with the smart and effective use of technology.
This nexus between the digital and the social sciences represents the skills we need for the future.
It is about future-proofing ourselves and our children for a different world — one where simply studying what blockchain or artificial intelligence does is not enough, and where the hard work comes in getting the emotional component right. That takes real work.
Two experiences I had recently brought home how the human touch turns the average into the extraordinary in the eyes of the consumer. Both were in the hospitality space, a wonderful example of an industry being digitally disrupted — you only need to consider the likes of Airbnb and Trivago.
My eyes were first opened in 2017 when I treated my wife to a birthday break at the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg.
Two days before our stay I was called by the hotel manager, who asked about my wife’s likes and dislikes and some other personal questions, such as what food we both enjoyed.
On the appointed day we arrived at the hotel and the duty manager was waiting for us. We didn’t need to sign any forms or use any digital tools; she greeted us by name at the door and escorted us to our room.
On the bed was a special gift for my wife and small, thoughtful touches had been placed in the room that spoke to our likes and preferences. Technology can’t do that.
Organisations that amplify and truly understand their end users will be the winners of the future because they understand the human, emotive, personalised element that no machine and no algorithm can.
Some will argue that the exclusive nature of an establishment such as the Saxon Hotel predisposes it to a more personalised service but, while this event was still fresh in my mind, I had a similar experience on a much grander scale during a family holiday to the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah Island in Dubai.
Unlike the more intimate Saxon experience, the Atlantis has 1,539 rooms over 23 floors and certainly debunks any claims that exemplary service can only be achieved by boutique establishments.
The Atlantis is a large, over-the-top hotel and yet I experienced the same type of personalised attention. We were greeted by name on arrival and asked about our likes and dislikes. A particularly lovely touch was recognising that one of my children had just celebrated a birthday, a date they picked up from our passports; it was a wonderful touch.
Similarly, seeing the type of work I do, I was offered a tour of the hotel.
The staff and management of the Atlantis really shone when it came to achieving customer intimacy, and doing that when you have more than 1,000 rooms means nothing stops other large organisations from being able to amplify the human element in their business.
Unfortunately, technology has become an easy way out for many organisations that lack the imagination and drive to put people first. Few would argue that the use of technology, where it has relevance, is vitally important in business, but it is not an elixir for every aspect of the customer experience.
I believe that companies should be taking the time to determine if the technology they are harnessing has relevance to the end user. If not, why bother?
Often companies make the mistake of thinking that digital, and digital alone, makes the lives of customers easier, but we have to be realistic about the level and extent of technology in our lives, otherwise we risk creating a soulless society.
When we look at the human aspect of technology, what becomes clear is that successful organisations and people in the future will apply the careful utilisation of technology.
Of course we must play with technology and apply it to our lives and businesses, but the irony is that technology is not damping down our humanity, it is providing an opportunity for human-cantered behaviours to flourish. In the new world, anything that cannot be digitised will become more valuable, so successful individuals and company brands in the next five to 10 years will be those that are able to tap into their innate human characteristics, fostering things such as curiosity, empathy and creativity. We don’t learn these traits at universities or colleges. Instead, we have to force ourselves to flex these muscles, no matter how uncomfortable.
Enhancing our humanity hinges on being curious about areas of discomfort.
In the real world it means driving a new route to work, eating something you haven’t tasted before, travelling to different destinations, speaking to someone new, or doing something you love at least once a week — just for yourself. This way you can keep the spark of humanity alive in you.
As people living in a new digital age we also need to be clever about how we use our time.
Digital tools are fantastic but certainly not all the time — sometimes we need a digital detox. I often say that devices should never be at the dinner table. They should not be used 30 minutes before you go to sleep and you should regulate the use of technology in your personal life and your organisational life.
It’s easy to engage in outraged Twitter wars all the time while hiding behind a computer, but why don’t we rather work on finding each other, putting the technology aside and talking face to face with empathy?
We should aim to learn one another’s stories and connect on a human level, to understand our shared histories.
This is essential for us as people and vital for organisations that will increasingly find that eyeball-to-eyeball, heart-to-heart, human connectivity far surpasses digital connectivity.
• Verachia is a Gordon Institute of Business Science lecturer and consultant.