By John Tadman, MD, Avanade SA
Just as the industrial revolution fundamentally changed society during the 18th and 19th centuries, ubiquitous connectivity and real-time access to enormous data sets means that today’s teenagers will end up working in roles that do not exist today.
According to research firm Gartner, 25-billion connected things will be in use by 2020, so most knowledge-based economies are placing significant focus on nurturing and developing IT skills.
However, the irresistible force of digitisation is also driving unprecedented demand for art and design capabilities that are fundamental to innovation and an engaging user experience.
Hence, there is growing momentum to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education models to drive digital readiness.
In parallel, the rise of digital technologies and the Internet of Things is enabling companies to collect, store and analyse unprecedented amounts of data about customers and employees.
Having access to this array of information requires organisations to consider more thoughtfully not only what can be done for commercial benefit, but whether it should be done from an ethical perspective. Meanwhile, people entering the workforce today tend to be seeking more significant meaning from their work and to have a greater impact on society.
As a result of these factors, a critical new role is emerging in the digital economy – the digital humanist.
The digital humanist
Decisions on the adoption of new technological capabilities continue to largely be led by logical engineers whose main priority is identifying innovation possibilities for enablers like data analytics, virtual reality, and intelligent software. To these engineers, extending the boundaries of functionality and automation is a primary objective.
Traditionally, this objective has been at the expense of creating a beautiful user experience, causing frequent adoption issues for organisations and frustrations for individuals trying to learn cumbersome new systems.
However, in our increasingly data-dense society, where companies have unprecedented access to personal information about customers and employees, the ‘human factor’ can no longer be diminished in technology decision-making. Moreover, the next-generation workforce comprising humans, devices, algorithms, intelligent software and data presents new ethical complexities for companies.
The role of a digital humanist is to advocate for customer and employee expectations in digital innovation projects. This advocacy will span user experience and design, but also the ethics of new technology innovations.
Digital ethics is not mandated by law, so it is largely up to each individual organisation to set its own innovation parameters and define how its data will be used.
Digital humanists will be influential in establishing and maintaining a relevant ethical framework for companies, but also in personalising and humanising the impacts of new technologies.
Digital humanists will consider scenarios like whether a customer would be comfortable with store associates or bank clerks recommending products and services based on behaviours that cookies have tracked online. Or conversely, whether a customer would be comfortable receiving a bad health prognosis digitally, rather than from a doctor or nurse.
Beyond data management and usage considerations, the digital humanist will influence company innovation with a more ‘right-brain’ approach to thinking, countering the dominant ‘left-brain’ thinking of logical engineers. Instead of asking “can we do this?”, they will ask “should we do this?”.
The balance of influence between engineers and digital humanists is currently skewed towards the former, but this will shift rapidly as companies recognise the implications of digitisation.
A digital ethics framework and the role of digital humanist will be essential to the capacity of companies to balance massive potential risks to trust and reputation against the potential commercial rewards of having access to, and insights from, unprecedented amounts of customer and employee data.
There is also a generational shift. People entering the workforce today are not just seeking a job; they are looking to gain more fundamental meaning from their work and to positively impact society.
In this context, logical engineers will continue to be integral to digital innovation, but the role of the digital humanist will become increasingly influential. Indeed, to succeed in the digital economy, a company will need to have its engineers and digital humanists working in harmony.