In the Digital Age, It’s Still All About People

Technology is empowering companies to change dramatically, but Kate O’Neill reminds them not to forget that people make it all worthwhile. 

By Erin Poulson

By Erin Poulson August 27, 2019

As companies undergo digital transformation, they often focus most on the evolving technologies that are making that transformation possible. It’s easy to see why — the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and so on are exciting. They have the potential to change work and the world as we know it. But by focusing on the technology itself, organizations might lose sight of the true power of transformation: the ability to create more meaningful human experiences.

Speaker, author and technology consultant Kate O’Neill believes the secret is using technology as a means to create those meaningful experiences. Her latest book, Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans, is helping business leaders across the world rethink what digital transformation really means, and embrace a new, more human-centric approach.

“At its heart, digital transformation is about people and helping them do what they need to do, faster, easier and more efficiently.” said O’Neill. 

“The technologies are simply tools that help companies get there. We need to be thinking much more broadly about how human experience is impacted by all kinds of technologies, and especially the emerging technologies that have so much capacity and scale in them.”

O’Neill began her tech career in the Wild West of the early ’90s, when people were exploring and experimenting to see what the internet could do. She was one of the first 100 employees at Netflix, and led one of the first digital strategy and analytics agencies. From the start, it was clear to her that not enough thought was going into how things worked for the humans using the technology. 

“People talked a little about usability back then and human-computer interaction was a rudimentary discipline but it wasn’t well understood,” she said. “Today there’s a lot more awareness of and interest in the user experience. The discourse is maturing.” 

But there’s still a long way to go.  

That’s why O’Neill wrote her book and why she spends most of her time now helping CEOs and other corporate leaders think about their challenges in a new way and put them into a human-centric digital transformation framework. 

It goes far beyond thinking that, “IoT is all the rage so we have to think about our IoT strategy now.” It’s all about how to put the human experience at the center of their digital transformation and why it’s important to make those experiences more meaningful. 

By focusing on the technology itself, organizations might lose sight of the true power of transformation: the ability to create more meaningful human experiences. Kate O’Neill, speaker, author and technology consultant 

What Does Meaningful Really Mean, Anyway?

To O’Neill, meaningful experiences are those that have depth and memorability, that are significant because of how they transcend or complement their context. Technology exists to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, but it often does just the opposite. Consider frustrating tech support calls or endless online help instructions. Now imagine getting exactly what’s needed in a timely, painless manner. She said that smoother process allows people to use technology to get things done then move on with their lives. 

That’s memorable and meaningful, she said. 

As businesses progress along the digital transformation path, they often cite improving the customer experience as one of the benefits of that transformation. That’s a valid and worthy objective, but it’s just one step on the human-centric highway, according to O’Neil

“In order to really appreciate the fullness of where a company and where a brand sit in the world and how its experiences intersect with the real human experience, we have to think beyond just the moment when someone is functioning as a customer,” she said. 

At its heart, digital transformation is about people and helping them do what they need to do, faster, easier and more efficiently

Kate O’Neill

In human-centric digital transformation, an organization takes into account all the people they interact with, not simply customers within a specific purchase cycle. Employees are humans, partner companies are made up of humans, and an organization’s choices and behavior can even affect humankind at large. 

Even the people who may become customers in time are not all the same. Think of someone who’s checking out your website on a tablet in the middle of a city sidewalk versus someone who just got an email on their smart watch while in a meeting at work. 

“The more you can think of the human perspective across the whole spectrum of their experiences throughout the day and the context in which they have those experiences,” O’Neill said, “the more possible it is to design experiences that mesh with those realities and provide things that actually add some utility and convenience to people and give them something that’s more meaningful in their lives.”

It All Starts with a Well-Defined Purpose

Companies can transform without a clear sense of direction. The first step is defining your organizational strategic purpose, according to O’Neill. 

“Most companies are in business for some reason other than to make money,” she said. “A strategic purpose brings them back to that grounding and gets them thinking more in terms of, ‘How do we make the world just a little bit better in this one very specific area?’ When they can align the rest of the organization around that, then they can deploy technology—whether it’s IoT or AI or automation—in a way that aligns with that and amplifies that mission.”

A purpose statement should include what the company is trying to do, and do at scale. This needs to be distilled to three to five words, said O’Neill. Doing this work reveals how every word matters when it comes to describing value and business purpose. The result is an ultra-clear idea that informs how to proceed with digital transformation. It helps drive every decision and interaction throughout the organization. It’s a foundation for a company’s culture, priorities and strategies. 

One of O’Neill’s favorite examples of a succinct, successful purpose statement comes from Disney theme parks, which is to “create magical experiences.” Those three words convey a very crisp understanding of a branded culture and approach to how Disney works. 

She said if the statement is truly understood and believed throughout the organization and employees are granted autonomy to follow through in the most relevant way necessary to ensure that they’re creating the most magical experiences, then everyone in the organization — no matter who they are and no matter what job they have — knows how to solve any problem brought to them.

Holding to Your Purpose Transforms Brand and Culture 

The next step is to hold the purpose statement against a list of organizational priorities, goals and strategies for getting things done. This can reveal how decision making doesn’t lead to the best customer or employee experiences. O’Neill said company culture can strengthen when employees understand that central strategic purpose and begin to act that out more in their interactions with customers and each other. 

“Getting clear and succinct on your purpose can inform not only brand, culture and experience strategy, but also data modeling and operations and technology deployment that amplifies and accelerates that purpose,” said O’Neill. 

“So the entire organization becomes more efficient, more effective, more aligned. And as a result, that sense of purpose, and what your company exists to do and is trying to do at scale, creates a more fulfilling, more meaningful sense of interaction between the company and the customer rather than something that’s fleeting and motivated only by money.”

Use Data for Intelligent Transformation

Digital transformation is mostly about the way data makes the organization smarter, more connected, more transparent, said O’Neill. By and large, that information is human data that represents interactions, interests and preferences of real people as they go through their daily lives.

“The amount of respect an organization shows for that data is made clear in the way it approaches and designs experiences from that point forward,” O’Neill said. 


The opportunity is in gleaning valuable insights from the data and making changes to align more effectively with your strategic purpose statement as well as with what people want.

Strong leadership must guide the company through this process and ensure everyone takes a learning approach. The ways things get done may need to change, all to make sure there’s alignment between the company and the humans that interact with that company. 

Happy Humans Affect Your Bottom Line

O’Neill believes the ability to design meaningful, human-centric digital experiences reaps rewards. It can make an organization memorable and profitable. It can make employees more content in their work and more loyal to the company. Partner companies strengthen partnerships with more projects and opportunities, board members like the reports they see and anyone who interacts with the company comes away better for it. 

O’Neill hold great hope for future success in human-centric digital transformation. 

“There are so many ways that technology can make human life better,” she said. “It’s just a matter of using it correctly, encoding the right values into the algorithmic decision-making and ensuring that we’re making decisions on behalf of the most people who can benefit from it. And of course I think that’s possible to do in a way that aligns with business success. That’s the only way it’s going to take and scale.”

It may be easy to define digital transformation by the benefits it can bring to an organization — more agility, faster time to market, more opportunities to innovate, more streamlined operations. But O’Neill argues there’s so much more to it. She recommends putting those benefits into service of improving human experiences. 

Fill in this statement: “More agility, faster time to market, etc., in order to [insert strategic purpose], and everyone wins.” 

The original version of this article first appeared in NEXT magazine, Issue 5, May 2019. Subscribe here.

Erin Poulson is a contributing writer who specializes in IT and business topics.

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