Digital transformation: 4 ways to build empathy into your processes

To succeed at digital transformation, leaders need to ensure teams and customers get empathetic technology interactions. We need tech to "speak human." That starts with emphasizing user-centricity and ends with careful measurement
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Empathy used to be an infrequent word in the boardroom, and many organizations firmly believed that if you wanted results, you needed to steer the ship with an iron fist. Thankfully this is no longer the case, and the notion of authentic leadership is starting to metabolize across global business leaders, creating a competitive advantage for those who lead with empathy.

Empathy is critical in understanding employees and customers, improving your offerings, driving efficiencies, and improving ROI. It’s also critical in improving how we interact with technology: Realizing the full value of your technology mandates a focus on how human users interact with platforms, systems, and processes. The idea applies both to your employees using technology in the flow of their daily work, and your customers who experience the end product.

COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated digital transformation as leaders seek business continuity, so a focus on empathy is even more important.

Today, COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated digital transformation as leaders seek business continuity, so a focus on empathy is even more important. Technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI ) and cloud are helping ensure companies maintain customer and stakeholder trust and keep remote workforces connected. Yet across the globe, employees are reporting fatigue – with change management, with Zoom meetings, with the technology that underpins their working day.

Combatting this fatigue requires investment in empathetic human-technology interactions. In other words, we need technology to “speak human.”

[ Is your team exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

Why digital transformation needs empathetic technology

To realize the value of tech investment, people need to quickly and effectively become proficient with the system’s capabilities. User adoption is a leading indicator of success, as the easier it is for people to interact with the technology, the more likely they will utilize it habitually.

However, to become fully adept at mastering technology, users need guidance. Instead of investing in training processes that adapt the user to the system, ensure continual guidance and contextual help by investing in technology that adapts to the users’ needs: technology that is built with empathy.

The burden of digital transformation failure was traditionally placed upon users’ inability to master new systems and processes, to adapt to the change.

It’s well known that many enterprise technology transformation projects fail to deliver their business case. This burden of failure was traditionally placed upon users’ inability to master new systems and processes, to adapt to the change.

Going forward, program leaders must increase project budget allocations to improve human and technology interactions to ensure the technology is easily adopted at speed and scale.

The key is to change how technology is implemented, and lead with human-centered, empathetic design. That design should not only promote ease of use, but also be laser focused on the users’ needs and desired outcomes.

For an employee user, that could be improving innovation and productivity. For a customer, it could be delivering a delightful experience. This must be factored into every project from the outset, with the investment, technology, and skill set to ensure success. If you plan for this your likelihood of success will be an order of magnitude bigger – it is the single most important predictor of success for any digital transformation project.

How to build empathy into the process: 4 techniques

1. Cultivate obsession with user-centricity

Leaders who succeed in large scale transformation projects are almost always obsessed with the clients of that transformation – not just the user experience but the humanity of the users themselves. For example, in the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos sought to create a company where nothing - not money, not time, not market opinions - mattered more than the needs of the customer.

Empathy maps seek to understand the user through the lens of their words, actions, thoughts and feelings.

Many successful unicorns became so by using the design thinking methodology which includes empathy maps that seek to understand the user through the lens of their words, actions, thoughts and feelings. In most projects today, focus on empathy is under-indexed.

2. Over-index on design skills

To develop a deep understanding of the end user and how they will interact with your technology, at least 30 percent of project teams should be some form of “designer.” Design tends to be thought of as the user interface, but this is only one facet of the discipline – in fact, design is the art of translating empathy. Designers focus both on how things look and how things work.

Alongside UX designers, you need design researchers and industrial designers who look at workflows through the lens of adoption; their job is to understand and implement things that people will naturally use. For example, when Frito-Lay wanted mobile-responsive tools for its employees and customers, they worked with the IBM Garage to conduct nearly 1,500 hours of user research like immersive ride-alongs with frontline employees, to understand employees’ needs and then co-create solutions.

3. Make it easy

Harnessing the immediate value from technology adoption requires users to be able to interact with it intuitively, investing a minimal amount of time before seeing benefits. All salespeople know that a CRM will help them in their day-to-day, like reminding them of customer birthdays, but if using a new CRM takes too long to master, or it only benefits company backoffices, they’re more likely to go back to old ways of working. If users are not adopting the technologies deployed to increase their productivity, a transformation initiative can’t succeed.

4. Measure adoption

The beauty of digital adoption is you can measure it by the second - it is the single most reliable metric of success. Investing in the team, tools, and technologies to measure adoption as you go along, and iterating as you better understand how people are successfully interacting with your technology, will unlock better human-technology interactions. This is imperative in securing the longevity of your digital business.

Digital adoption is a crucial part of digital transformation

A world where technology adapts to the user is not a distant dream. Already we see digital adoption becoming a crucial part of enterprise digital transformation, allowing CIOs and business leaders to decode and address gaps in adoption in practically real-time.

As we move into the post-pandemic future where the distributed workforce becomes a business reality, the need for empathetic technology will only increase. As our world becomes increasingly digitized, there is a clear imperative to ensure it remains fundamentally human.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Jesus Mantas is a Senior Managing Partner in IBM’s Global Business Services. He has led IBM consulting and process services business in Latin America, North America and globally. Prior to IBM, he was a Partner in PricewaterhouseCooper’s High Technology practice, adjunct Professor at University of California, Irvine and officer in the Air Force of Spain.
Rafael Sweary, cofounded WalkMe, the leading digital adoption platform, in 2011. Previously, Rafi was the cofounder, CEO and then President of Jetro Platforms which was acquired in 2007. Since then, he has funded and helped build a number of companies both in his role as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Ocean Assets and in a personal capacity.